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Determined Panthers eye elusive state trip

Seniors (from left) Lindsey Girtz, Sarena Kinkel, Hope Johnson and Morgan Knott will be looking to lead the Park Rapids girls tennis team to the Section 8A title and first trip to the state Class A tournament.

     Brianne Morris is hoping this is the year that the Park Rapids girls tennis team can capture the elusive Section 8A title.

     Last season the Panthers almost fulfilled that goal by going 16-2 in dual meets, earning the No. 2 seed in the section and advancing to the section championship match. A 4-3 loss to No. 1 Staples-Motley prevented the Panthers from advancing to the state Class A tournament for the first time in school history.

     Even though the Panthers graduated four starters, Morris is confident her team will once again contend for that elusive state berth.

     The Panthers have four key spots to fill with the graduation of Christina Smith, Julie Renner, Charity Ridlon and Ali Walsh.

     Smith and Renner won the section title in doubles for the second year in a row and finished fourth at the state meet for the second straight season. Smith went 9-4 at No. 1 singles and Renner went 7-0 at No. 2 singles while teaming up to go 9-1 as No. 1 doubles partners. Smith received Mid-State Conference honors by placing third at No. 1 singles while Renner was an all-conference player after winning the Mid-State title at No. 2 singles. Smith, who qualified for four state tournaments, went 117-44 during her varsity career while Renner had a 124-37 record.

     Ridlon went 24-7 overall last 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. Ridlon was the runner-up at No. 2 doubles at the conference tournament to earn all-conference honorable mention honors.

     Walsh compiled a 21-8 overall record, including a 3-3 mark at No. 2 doubles and a 17-5 record at No. 3 doubles. Walsh won the conference title at No. 3 doubles.

     “We graduated some seniors that had been on varsity since their 8th grade year. There is no way that we will be able to replace their talent and experience on the varsity level,” said Morris, who will be assisted by Barb Thomason. “We still have some strong players that are returning with a lot of varsity experience. The girls are going to have to work extra hard if they want to have another successful season.”

     Despite losing those four players, the Panthers return a veteran lineup as 10 players are back after seeing varsity action last season.

     Heading that list are seniors Lindsey Girtz, Hope Johnson, Sarena Kinkel and Morgan Knott; juniors Kellsey Clark and Mariena Dearstyne; sophomore Julia Smith; and eighth grader Natalie Kinkel.

     Julia Smith qualified for her first state tournament after placing second at singles at the section meet and going 1-1 in her state debut. Smith ended the season with a 25-5 overall record and was an all-conference selection after winning the Mid-State title at No. 3 singles. Smith went 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, who entered the section meet as the No. 2 seed in singles, will take over at No. 1 singles this season.

     Johnson teamed with Ridlon to claim runner-up honors at No. 2 doubles at the conference meet and enter the section meet as the No. 11 seed in doubles. Johnson compiled a 20-11 overall record by 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. Johnson will fill the No. 2 singles spot this season.

     Girtz and Sarena Kinkel were doubles partners most of the season, going 7-7 at No. 1 doubles and 8-3 at No. 2 doubles. That pair finished fourth at the conference tournament at No. 1 doubles. Girtz compiled an 18-14 overall record (including a 1-3 record at No. 3 singles and 16-10 record in doubles) while Kinkel finished with an 18-12 overall record (including a 1-0 mark at No. 3 singles and 17-12 mark in doubles). Girtz also went 1-1 as the No. 9 seed in singles at the section meet. That duo will move up to No. 1 doubles this fall.

     Knott went 12-14 overall last season, including a 2-7 mark at No. 4 singles, a 4-3 record at No. 2 doubles and a 6-4 record at No. 3 doubles. Knott finished fourth at No. 4 singles at the conference tournament.

     Dearstyne teamed with Walsh to win the conference title at No. 3 doubles. Dearstyne ended the season with a 20-3 record, going 5-1 at No. 3 singles, 4-1 at No. 4 singles and 11-1 at No. 3 doubles.

     Knott and Dearstyne have taken over the No. 2 doubles spot this fall.

     Clark compiled a 1-1 record at No. 4 singles and 6-2 mark at No. 3 doubles while Natalie Kinkel went 5-4 at No. 4 singles before missing the end of the season with an elbow injury.

     Also back with varsity experience are sophomores Drew Hilmanowski (0-1 at No. 4 singles and 4-2 at No. 3 doubles) and Rachel Palmer (1-2 at No. 4 singles).

     Looking to compete for varsity spots are sophomores Haley MacPherson and Rachel Konshok and freshmen Tori Hilmanowski, Olivia Wallace, Amber Schroeder, Amanda Parker, Caitlin Tollefson and Sierra Paris-Borg.

     Natalie Kinkel has played No. 3 singles, Tori Hilmanowski has played No. 4 singles, and Drew Hilmanowski and MacPherson have played No. 3 doubles as the Panthers have started the season with a 4-2 record in dual meets.

     “So far this season, the girls have really impressed with their work ethic and have done great stepping up. I think that we will be able to compete with all teams in our conference and section. It will be tough, but I think that these girls know what they need to do to compete,” said Morris. “We are off to a great start. The girls put in a lot of work over the summer and it has shown on the courts so far this season. It will be fun to see how things go as we begin playing teams in both our conference and section. Our goal is the same as last year: make it to state as a team. That is going to be tough because we have a tough section. It is going to take a lot of hard work and mental toughness for us to reach that goal.”