This could be the year the Park Rapids girls tennis team accomplishes an elusive goal.
With seven starters returning, head coach Brianne Morris believes the Panthers have the talent to qualify for the state Class A tournament for the first time in the program’s 28-year history.
The Panthers return a solid nucleus from last year’s squad that finished third at the Mid-State Conference meet and went 13-6 in dual meets, ending the season with a 4-3 loss to Staples-Motley in the Section 8A semifinals.
“Since losing to Staples-Motley in the semifinals last year, the girls have talked only about being that team that wins sections and makes it to state,” said Morris, who will be assisted by Barb Thomason. “They want to be the first Park Rapids team to make it to state.”
Being counted on to make the Panthers contenders for the conference and section titles are the seven returning starters: seniors Christina Smith, Julia Renner and Charity Ridlon; juniors Lindsey Girtz, Hope Johnson and Sarena Kinkel; and freshman Julia Smith.
Christina Smith and Renner return as the top doubles team in the section after winning the section title and becoming the first doubles team in school history to bring home a medal from the state Class A tournament. That duo went 13-0 at No. 1 doubles, earned Mid-State honors by capturing the conference title at that spot and finished with a 19-2 record as doubles partners, capping the season by placing fourth at the state meet.
Smith was named the Panthers’ Most Valuable Player after going 6-5 at No. 1 singles and qualifying for her third consecutive trip to state while Renner went 6-1 at No. 1 singles and 9-1 at No. 2 singles en route to a 34-4 overall record and her first state trip.
Ridlon went 17-14 with a 4-5 mark at No. 1 singles, a 6-5 record at the No. 2 singles, a 5-1 mark at No. 3 singles and a 2-2 record at No. 4 singles. Ridlon finished second at No. 2 singles at the conference meet to earn Mid-State honorable mention honors and was the No. 12 seed in singles at the section meet.
Girtz and Kinkel teamed up to go 14-9 as doubles partners. That duo went 3-5 at No. 1 doubles and 10-3 at No. 2 doubles, placing fourth at No. 2 doubles at the conference meet. Girtz and Kinkel entered the section tourney as the No. 9 seed and split two matches. Girtz finished with a 20-12 overall record in doubles while Kinkel went 18-14 overall in doubles in their first varsity seasons.
Julia Smith was named the Panthers’ Rookie of the Year after going 17-6 overall in her varsity debut. Smith had a 3-3 record at No. 1 singles, a 2-0 record at No. 2 singles, an 8-0 record at No. 3 singles, a 2-2 record at No. 2 doubles and a 1-0 record at No. 2 doubles. Smith placed fourth at No. 1 singles at the conference meet and split two matches as the No. 7 seed in singles at the section meet.
Johnson also had a solid season in her first year on the varsity, going 18-12 at five positions. Johnson went 2-3 at No. 2 singles, 10-4 at No. 3 singles, 3-2 at No. 4 singles, 2-3 at No. 1 doubles and 1-0 at No. 2 doubles. Johnson received the team’s Spirit Award and finished second at No. 3 singles at the conference meet.
Looking to replace last year’s senior crew of Heidi Schaum (who went 0-1 at No. 3 singles, 2-2 at No. 4 singles, 10-6 at No. 2 doubles and 1-0 at No. 3 doubles), Lydia Schaum (who went 2-1 at No. 2 singles, 1-0 at No. 3 singles, 6-2 at No. 4 singles, 4-3 at No. 2 doubles and 1-0 at No. 3 doubles), and Jeni Simpson and Jill Simpson (who teamed up to go 1-0 at No. 2 doubles and 16-13 at No. 3 doubles) will be seniors Katy Spears and Ali Walsh; junior Morgan Knott; sophomores Kellsey Clark and Mariena Dearstyne; freshmen Emma Dotta, Hannah Dotta, Drew Hilmanowski, Rachel Konshok, Haley MacPherson and Rachel Palmer; and seventh grader Natalie Kinkel. Walsh went 2-2 at No. 4 singles and teamed with Knott to go 0-1 at No. 3 doubles last season.
“Many of the girls put in a lot of hours over the summer knowing they needed to get out and hit as often as possible,” said Morris. “I’m looking for the girls to give 100 percent each time they are on the court and to work hard during practice, in the weight room and in matches. We are doing everything we can to help them by working on strategies, conditioning and lifting weights”
Last season, Staples-Motley backed up its No. 1 seed, defeating Crookston 4-3 in the section title match to qualify for the state tournament. The Panthers will be looking to battle those two teams and Pequot Lakes and earn that elusive first trip to state while also looking to be represented in either singles or doubles at state for the sixth consecutive season.
“The girls are all willing to play anywhere they are needed to help the team. They are definitely putting team before self. It is great to see the girls giving everything they have at practice. They are working harder than I have ever seen them work,” said Morris. “They are determined to be the team to make it to state. They know that they need to continue to put in the work as we still have a strong section. They also know that it is up to them. If they put in the work, they will excel.”