Panthers made steady improvement
With the return of six varsity players, Jeff Renner thought the Park Rapids boys tennis team had the nucleus to put a competitive team on the courts.
Renner had to rely on seven first-year varsity players to fill out the varsity lineup. That lack of experience, coupled with a tough schedule, prevented the Panthers from fulfilling their main goals this season.
The Panthers returned six starters in seniors Steve Smith, Max Brown, Kyle Dickinson and James Kujawa; junior Alex Renner; and sophomore Scott Smith.
A year ago, Renner went 12-5 at No. 2 singles; Dickinson and Kujawa combined for a 7-12 record at No. 2 doubles; Steve Smith went 5-7 at No. 3 singles; Brown had a 12-5 record at No. 3 doubles; and Scott Smith went 7-5 at No. 4 singles. Those six helped the Panthers share the Mid-State Conference title, go 5-1 against conference opponents in dual meets and finish with a 6-9 overall record in dual meets.
The other starting spots were filled by players moving into the starting lineup on varsity for the first time. That group featured seniors Mark Bravo, Armando Padilla, Jonah Pearson and Bob Swanstrom; junior Kevin Merfeld; sophomore Mitch Fossen; and freshman Chris Shaw.
Renner was counting on the six veterans to lead the way and the seven newcomers to play like veterans this season.
That plan didn't quite play out as the Panthers finished third at the Mid-State tournament, went 3-2 against conference opponents and 0-8 against non-conference foes for a 3-10 overall record in dual meets, and was ousted in the first round of the Section 8A tournament.
"I had to move guys around at the beginning of the year to find our best lineup, but by mid-season we had a lineup that was pretty competitive," said Renner. "We didn't quite have the season we had last year, but I thought we did all right considering we had so many new varsity players."
The Panthers opened the season with a 7-0 loss to Grand Rapids and a 6-1 loss to Bemidji before placing seventh at the Park Rapids tournament.
Park Rapids then edged Wadena-Deer Creek 4-3 in a conference match, lost to Crookston 6-1 and defeated Perham 5-2 in another conference match.
A five-match losing streak followed as the Panthers dropped matches to Thief River Falls (7-0), Staples-Motley (6-1), Detroit Lakes (5-2), Crookston (6-1) and East Grand Forks (4-3). The Panthers also finished third at the Mid-State Conference meet by tallying 14 points. Staples-Motley and Detroit Lakes shared the conference title with 23 points while Perham (7) and W-DC (2) trailed the Panthers.
The Panthers closed the regular season with a 7-0 win over Wadena-Deer Creek to earn the No. 6 seed for the Section 8A tournament. Park Rapids' season came to an end with a 6-1 loss to No. 3 Crookston in the quarterfinals. Thief River Falls defeated Crookston for the section title and ended up placing third at the state Class A tournament.
For the season, the Panthers went 12-8 at No. 1 singles, 6-14 at No. 2 singles, 3-17 at No. 3 singles, 3-17 at No. 4 singles, 9-11 at No. 1 doubles, 10-10 at No. 2 doubles and 5-15 at No. 3 doubles.
Renner was named the Panthers' Most Valuable Player after going 12-6 at No. 1 singles, earning all-conference honors with a runner-up showing at No. 1 singles at the Mid-State tournament, and going 2-2 to finish fourth in singles at the Section 8A tournament. Renner was the No. 2 seed entering the section tournament.
Steve Smith, who lost his first-round match after entering the section tournament as the No. 7 seed in singles, compiled a 5-6 record at No. 2 singles. Smith finished third at No. 2 singles at the conference tournament.
Brown and Scott Smith combined for a 7-6 record at No. 1 doubles and a 2-0 record at No. 2 doubles, earning all-conference honors as the Mid-State runners-up at No. 1 doubles. That duo, which entered the section tournament as the No. 8 seed, won its first match before falling in the quarterfinals. Scott Smith also had a 1-4 record at No. 2 singles while Brown finished with a 10-10 overall record in doubles.
Dickinson and Kujawa teamed up for a 1-3 record at No. 1 doubles and a 7-6 record at No. 2 doubles. Dickinson and Kujawa finished as the conference runners-up at No. 2 doubles. That duo entered the section tournament as the No. 14 seed in doubles and was defeated in a first-round match.
Padilla was named the Panthers' Most Improved Player after going 0-1 at No. 1 singles, 0-3 at No. 2 singles, 3-8 at No. 3 singles and 0-1 at No. 2 doubles.
Shaw received the team's Most Promising Player award after going 0-2 at No. 3 singles, 0-2 at No. 4 singles, 1-2 at No. 2 doubles and 4-9 at No. 3 doubles.
Pearson played five different positions, going 0-1 at No. 1 singles, 0-1 at No. 2 singles, 0-3 at No. 3 singles, 1-5 at No. 4 singles, 0-1 at No. 2 doubles and 3-5 at No. 3 doubles. Pearson and Shaw teamed up to finish third at the conference tournament at No. 3 doubles.
Merfeld finished fifth at No. 3 singles at the conference tournament and ended the season with a 0-4 record at No. 3 singles, a 1-1 record at No. 4 singles and a 0-1 record at No. 1 doubles.
Bravo played No. 4 singles at the conference tournament, finishing fourth with a 1-3 record.
Swanstrom had a 0-6 record at No. 4 singles and a 0-8 record at No. 3 doubles. Swanstrom received the team's Hardest Worker award.
Fossen went 1-5 at No. 3 doubles.
"The guys improved a lot from the beginning of the year to the end," said Renner. "I had a fun year coaching. I hope the kids had fun too."
Next season, Renner will once again have to find players to fill key starting spots. Eight seniors graduate, but the Panthers will return five players who saw varsity action and several younger players who show promise.
"We have some experience coming back and there are a few kids coming up who have potential," said Renner. "I think we'll do all right again next year."