Panthers served up successful season
Nicole Brandt had high hopes for the Park Rapids girls tennis team this season.
Despite falling short of reaching their main goals, the Panthers still had a successful season by going 12-6 in dual meets and sending a player to the state Class A tournament for the fourth year in a row.
Brandt was hoping the Panthers would earn the school's first trip to state. The addition of Staples-Motley and Pequot Lakes to Section 8A prevented that from happening.
However, the Panthers were able to extend their state streak when sophomore Christina Smith advanced in singles. Smith became the first player in the history of the Park Rapids girls tennis program to qualify for state in both singles and doubles.
The season got off to a slow start as losing three close matches led to a 1-4 record in dual meets.
After opening the season by winning the Park Rapids Invitational with 29 points (Roseau was second with 23.5 points in this eight-team tournament), the Panthers lost close matches to Fergus Falls (4-3) and Sauk Centre (5-2) before defeating Yellow Medicine East (5-2).
Park Rapids then finished third at the Crookston Invitational with 21 points. Hibbing finished first with 34 points while Crookston was second with 23 points in this seven-team tournament.
Two more close losses followed as the Panthers dropped matches to Pequot Lakes and Long Prairie-Grey Eagle by 4-3 scores. Another close match against Crookston was canceled because of rain with the Panthers holding a 3-2 lead.
After a pair of 7-0 Mid-State Conference victories over Crosby-Ironton and Wadena-Deer Creek, the Panthers dropped a 4-3 decision to Staples-Motley in another conference dual.
The Panthers dominated their next three matches by blanking Detroit Lakes 7-0 and Perham 7-0 in conference matches and shutting out New York Mills 7-0.
Pequot Lakes captured its first Mid-State Conference title with 38 points while the Panthers earned runner-up honors with 34 points.
The Panthers peaked at the end of the season, entering tournament play with four straight wins over section opponents.
A 4-3 win over Pequot Lakes was followed with a 4-3 win over Crookston. The Panthers closed out the regular season with 6-1 victories over Roseau, East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls.
Splitting with Pequot Lakes and losing to Staples-Motley during the regular season gave the Panthers the No. 3 seed for the section tournament. Pequot Lakes used a win over Staples-Motley to earn the No. 1 seed while the Cardinals were seeded No. 2.
After opening the section tournament with a 5-2 win over No. 6 East Grand Forks, the Panthers had their quest for a state trip denied with a 5-2 loss to Staples-Motley in the semifinals.
Following that loss, the Panthers were looking to regroup and qualify some individuals for state.
Seniors Bonnie Baumgartner and Allie Girtz entered as the No. 1 seed in doubles while Smith (No. 3) and sophomore Julia Renner (No. 5) had high seeds in singles play.
Smith upset No. 2-seeded Mikayla Wing of Staples-Motley in the semifinals before losing to top-seeded Jessamy Jones of East Grand Forks in the finals to qualify for state. Smith ended up losing both her matches at the state tournament.
Baumgartner and Girtz were upset by No. 2-seeded Maggie O'Keefe and Kelsey Zetah of Staples-Motley in the championship match and lost to Crookston's Bailey Morris and Lilli Denison, the No 6 seed, in a true-second match to miss out on a state berth.
Renner lost to Jones in the semifinals and Wing in the third-place match to finish fourth in singles for the second year in a row.
"I feel the girls had a great season. They played hard and showed that they were a tough team to face," said Brandt. "I knew that we would have a good season. However, I was nervous with Staples and Pequot entering the section. I was proud that the girls were able to take those two teams on and play well."
For the most part, the Panthers used the same lineup to challenge for the conference and section titles.
Smith was named the Panthers' Most Valuable Player after posting a 14-9 record at No. 1 singles. Smith finished third at the conference tournament at that position and received all-conference honors before earning her second trip to state. Smith ended the season with a 17-12 overall record. Smith was an all-conference honorable mention player last season.
Girtz and Baumgartner played No. 1 doubles all season, going 22-2 during the regular season before ending with a 26-5 overall record as doubles partners. That duo earned all-conference honors after winning the Mid-State title at No. 1 doubles. Girtz, who was named the Panthers' Most Dedicated Player and repeated as an all-conference player, ended her varsity career with 69 wins. Baumgartner, who received the team's Hustle Award, led the team in wins by compiling a 29-5 overall record this season to conclude her varsity career with 70 victories.
Renner was second on the team in wins, going 4-3 at No. 1 singles and 21-1 at No. 2 singles and finishing with a 27-7 overall record in singles. Renner was the Mid-State champion at No. 2 singles to earn all-conference honors.
The senior duo of Lexi Burlingame and Katie Walsh held the No. 2 doubles spot most of the season. Burlingame and Walsh finished third at the conference tournament at that spot and compiled a 16-10 overall record as doubles partners, including a 1-1 record at No. 1 doubles and a 15-8 record at No. 2 doubles. They were the No. 11 seed for the section tournament. Burlingame, who was an all-conference honorable mention selection, ended the season with an 18-12 overall record while Walsh, who received the team's Coaches Award, tallied a 20-11 record in doubles this fall.
Juniors Lydia Schaum and Heidi Schaum held down the No. 3 and No. 4 singles spots most of the season. Lydia Schaum went 24-6 overall, going 4-1 at No. 2 singles, 18-5 at No. 3 singles (including a runner-up finish at the conference tournament) and 1-0 at No. 4 singles. Heidi Schaum posted an 18-11 overall record by going 4-1 at No. 3 singles and 13-9 at No. 4 singles, including a runner-up showing at the conference tournament.
The senior duo of Taylor Wheeler and Brittany Kinkel teamed up for a 6-5 record at No. 3 doubles and a third-place finish at that position at the Mid-State meet. Wheeler compiled a 13-13 overall record, going 0-1 at No. 3 singles, 0-1 at No. 1 doubles, 2-1 at No. 2 doubles and 11-11 at No. 3 doubles. Kinkel ended up with a 10-7 overall record in doubles, including a 10-6 mark at No. 3 doubles.
Sophomore Charity Ridlon earned a varsity spot late in the season and ended up with a 9-9 overall record. Ridlon went 4-2 at No. 4 singles before teaming with Wheeler for a 5-6 record at No. 3 doubles.
Also seeing some varsity time this season were juniors Lesa Ludwinski, Jeni Simpson and Jill Simpson. Ludwinski went 1-0 at No. 4 singles and 0-1 at No. 3 doubles while the Simpsons had a 1-2 record as No. 3 doubles partners.
For the season, the Panthers went 18-12 at No. 1 singles, 27-3 at No. 2 singles, 23-7 at No. 3 singles, 19-11 at No. 4 singles, 24-5 at No. 1 doubles, 18-11 at No. 2 doubles and 16-14 at No. 3 doubles.
Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers have five section spots to fill. All those spots are in doubles. However, the return of all four singles players and several talented junior varsity players has Brandt expecting another successful season in 2012.
"(Our seniors) will be missed. This has been a great group of young ladies. They are great supporters of the others on the team and they worked hard and brought their best game to practice and matches," said Brandt. "There will be a few changes for next year. However, I think that the girls will have another good season. The top singles players will be returning and some of the JV girls have been working on doubles skills and are willing to work hard for the varsity spots. I see our tennis team on the top half of the section. They are willing to work hard and I see them doing great things."