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Panthers contended for state berth

Christina Smith capped off her senior season with her fourth trip to the state Class A tournament and her third team Most Valuable Player honor.1 / 2
Julia Renner capped off her senior season by earning Mid-State Conference honors, qualifying for her second trip to the state Class A tournament and going 26-4 to end her career with a 124-37 record.2 / 2

  Brianne Morris knew the Park Rapids girls tennis team had the talent to contend for the program’s first trip to the state Class A tournament.

     A 4-3 loss to Staples-Motley in the Section 8A championship match prevented the Panthers from fulfilling that ultimate goal.

     That was about the only goal that wasn’t reached this fall as the Panthers put together another successful season by going 16-2 in dual meets and being ranked No. 9 in the final state Class A poll, tying for second place at the Mid-State Conference meet, advancing to the section title match, sending a singles player and doubles team to the state meet, and bringing home a state medal for the second year in a row.

     Highlighting the season was having seniors Christina Smith and Julia Renner finish fourth in doubles at state for the second consecutive season. Freshman Julia Smith also qualified for state in singles.

     The Panthers also excelled in the classroom and earned a State Gold Academic Award for having a team GPA of 3.79.

     “I was very pleased with the season. We were ranked in the top 10 and made it to the finals of the section,” said Morris, who was named the Section 8A Coach of the Year. “We knew that it would be tough, with our toughest opponent being Staples, but that is why the girls worked so hard over the summer. They wanted to have a successful season. The only goal we didn’t make was going to state as a team. I thought the season went great.”

     After opening the season by placing fifth at the eight-team Park Rapids Invitational with 19 points (Minnewaska Area took first with 26 points), the Panthers opened the season by winning their first seven dual meets.

     Park Rapids defeated Fergus Falls 6-1, Sauk Centre 4-3 and Yellow Medicine East 6-1 before earning runner-up honors at the Crookston Invitational with 30 points. Thief River Falls led the eight-team field with 32 points.

     Wins over Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (5-2), Crookston (4-3), Pequot Lakes (4-3) and Wadena-Deer Creek (6-1) followed before the Panthers dropped a 4-3 decision to Staples-Motley.

     That would prove to be the Panthers’ only dual loss for the rest of the regular season as victories over Perham (7-0), Crosby-Ironton (5-2), Detroit Lakes (7-0), New York Mills (7-0), East Grand Forks (6-1), Thief River Falls (5-2) and Pequot Lakes (5-2) led to a 14-1 record and the No. 2 seed for the section tournament.

     After tying for second place with Pequot Lakes at the Mid-State Conference meet with 33 points (Staples-Motley took first with 35 points) and placing second at the four-team Thief River Falls Quadrangular with 12 points (the host Prowlers took first with 14 points), the Panthers opened the section tournament by blanking No. 7 Wadena-Deer Creek 7-0 in the quarterfinals and edging No. 3 Pequot Lakes 4-3 in the semifinals. Park Rapids’ quest for state ended with a 4-3 loss to No. 1 Staples-Motley in the section title match. Staples-Motley, which was rated No. 5 in the final state poll, ended up placing third at the state tournament.

     “It was tough when we lost to Staples in the finals because the girls had worked so hard and they really wanted to be the team to make it to state,” said Morris. “But after a little time they knew that they gave it their all and did what they could. They didn’t play bad. Staples was just the better team.”

     The Panthers were able to send players to state for the sixth year in a row when Christina Smith and Renner repeated as the section champs in doubles and Julia Smith was the section runner-up in singles as the Panthers sent a singles player and doubles team to state in the same season for only the third time. Allison Reich (in singles) and Tanya Peterson and Jennifer Pederson (in doubles) qualified in 1991 while Alison Utke (in singles) and Amy Luther and Lindsey Czeczok (in doubles) qualified in 2005.

     Renner and Christina Smith, who became the first Park Rapids doubles team to win a state medal by placing fourth last season, repeated that feat by going 2-2 at state this year while Julia Smith went 1-1 in her state debut in singles.

     “To finish the season sending a doubles team and singles player to state was a great accomplishment,” said Morris. “Christina and Julia are great players. I was hoping for them to make it to the second day. I wasn’t surprised by their play at all. They stepped up their level of play and were ready to take on anybody. They played great tennis. I was very excited to see them go home with a medal again. Julia also played great. It was very exciting to see her do so well.”

     Bringing home another state medal capped off historic careers for Christina Smith and Renner, who went 15-3 as doubles partners this season and 34-5 as doubles partners the last two seasons.

     Christina Smith joined Megan Reich as the only Park Rapids tennis players to compete in four state tournaments and was the only player in Park Rapids history to qualify for state in both singles and doubles. Smith went 9-4 at No. 1 singles and 10-1 at No. 1 doubles this season and received all-conference honors after placing third at No. 1 singles at the Mid-State tournament. The team’s Most Valuable Player also earned all-state academic honors and concluded her five-year varsity career with a 117-44 record.

     Renner compiled a 124-37 overall record during her five-year varsity career, capping off her senior season by going 7-0 at No. 2 singles and 13-2 at No. 1 doubles. Renner also earned all-conference honors after winning the Mid-State title at No. 2 singles.

     Julia Smith also earned all-conference honors after winning the Mid-State title at No. 3 singles and finished the season with a 25-5 record after going 7-3 at No. 1 singles, 5-0 at No. 2 singles, 7-0 at No. 3 singles and 1-0 at No. 1 doubles. Smith was the No. 2 seed for the section tournament.

     In addition to the three state qualifiers, the Panthers used outstanding seasons from the other letterwinners to produce another successful season. That group featured seniors Charity Ridlon and Ali Walsh; juniors Lindsey Girtz, Hope Johnson, Sarena Kinkel and Morgan Knott; sophomores Mariena Dearstyne and Kellsey Clark; freshmen Drew Hilmanowski and Rachel Palmer; and seventh grader Natalie Kinkel.

     Ridlon compiled a 24-7 overall record this season, going 6-1 at No. 2 singles, 7-0 at No. 3 singles, 3-1 at No. 1 doubles and 8-4 at No. 2 doubles while Johnson had a 20-11 overall record, going 3-4 at No. 1 singles, 7-3 at No. 2 singles, 3-1 at No. 3 singles and 7-2 at No. 2 doubles. Ridlon and Johnson, who were two of the captains this season, took second at No. 2 doubles at the Mid-State meet and were the No. 11 seed in doubles for the section tournament. Ridlon received all-conference honorable mention honors while Johnson received the Team Spirit Award.

     Walsh earned all-state academic honors and compiled a 21-8 overall record this season, going 1-0 at No. 4 singles, 3-3 at No. 2 doubles and 17-5 at No. 3 doubles. Walsh and Dearstyne went 11-1 as doubles partners and won the Mid-State title at No. 3 doubles.

     Girtz and Sarena Kinkel combined for a 15-10 record as doubles partners, going 7-7 at No. 1 doubles and 8-3 at No. 2 doubles. That duo finished fourth at the conference meet. Girtz ended the season with an 18-14 overall record, going 1-3 at No. 3 singles and 9-3 at No. 2 doubles before going 1-1 as the No. 9 seed in singles at the section tournament. Girtz was the other captain and received the team’s Most Dedicated honor. Kinkel ended the season with an 18-12 overall record, going 1-0 at No. 3 singles, 8-7 at No. 1 doubles and 9-5 at No. 2 doubles.

     Knott compiled a 12-14 overall record this season, going 2-7 at No. 4 singles, 4-3 at No. 2 doubles and 6-4 at No. 3 doubles. Knott and Walsh went 3-3 at No. 2 doubles and 5-4 at No. 3 doubles. Knott was named the Panthers’ Most Improved.

     Dearstyne finished with a 20-3 overall record, going 5-1 at No. 3 singles, 4-1 at No. 4 singles and 11-1 at No. 3 doubles.

     Clark went 1-1 at No. 4 singles and 6-2 at No. 3 doubles, Hilmanowski compiled a 0-1 record at No. 4 singles and 4-2 record at No. 2 doubles, Palmer went 1-2 at No. 4 singles, and Natalie Kinkel had a 5-4 record at No. 4 singles. Clark was named the Panthers’ Rookie of the Year and junior varsity’s Most Dedicated, Hilmanowski was named the JV’s Most Valuable and Palmer was named the JV’s Most Improved.

     Even though the Panthers graduate four key players, Morris is counting on her team to once again contend for that elusive state berth next season.

     “We are losing some very valuable players. Christina and Julia have been on varsity and key players since they were in 8th grade. Placing at state two years in a row is an amazing accomplishment and should give motivation for our younger players. Charity and Ali have been contributing to varsity for the last three years. Both of them were so willing to play wherever they were needed to help the team win. They are all great players who led by example on and off the court. They also showed the younger girls the importance of not only competing on the tennis court, but doing well in the classroom,” said Morris. “We are losing some valuable players, but the younger girls know what is expected of them. They still want to make it to state. To reach that goal, they will have to work hard over the summer and next fall. The younger players need to step up if the goal of making it to state is to be reached.”