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Panthers will put contending team on court

Providing leadership for the Park Rapids girls tennis team this season are seniors (from left) Haley MacPherson, Drew Hilmanowski and Julia Smith. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

Brianne Morris once again expects the Park Rapids girls tennis team will contend for the Section 8A title.

Last year, the Panthers went 9-13 in dual meets, earned the No. 5 seed for the Section 8A tournament and opened section play with a 4-3 loss to No. 4 Roseau. Crookston, the No. 1 seed, defeated No. 3 Staples-Motley 5-2 in the section championship match and went on to claim runner-up honors at the state tournament, dropping a 7-0 decision to Blake in the title match.

With the return of nine varsity players, the Park Rapids head coach has a veteran team with the potential to win a section title for the first time in school history.

Returning to lead the Panthers this season are senior captains Julia Smith, Drew Hilmanowski and Haley MacPherson; juniors Tori Hilmanowski and Olivia Wallace; and sophomores Natalie Kinkel, Gracie Eischens, Chloe Johnson and Meagan Powers. Freshman Jada Renneberg also saw limited varsity time last season.

Smith will return at No. 1 singles after going 14-6 at that position, including a runner-up showing at the conference tournament. The team's MVP was the No. 1 seed in singles for the section tournament and won the section singles title to earn her third straight trip to state. Smith went 1-1 at state, winning a match at state for the third year in a row. Smith had a 21-8 overall record last season to improve her career record to 97-32. Smith enters the season rated No. 9 in singles in the state Class A poll.

Drew Hilmanowski and MacPherson competed at No. 2 doubles most of the season, going 9-10 at that spot while posting a 0-7 record at No. 1 doubles. That duo finished fourth at No. 2 doubles at the conference tournament and was the No. 14 seed in doubles for the section tournament. That duo will move up to No. 1 doubles this season.

Kinkel made an impact in her first varsity season by going 5-0 at No. 1 singles and 14-7 at No. 2 singles. Kinkel claimed runner-up honors at No. 2 singles at the conference tournament and was the No. 4 seed in singles for the section tournament.

Tori Hilmanowski will also return to play singles after compiling a 1-3 record at No. 2 singles, a 9-13 record at No. 3 singles and a 0-2 record at No. 4 singles. At the conference tournament, Hilmanowski finished fourth at No. 3 singles.

Eischens and Wallace teamed up to finish third at No. 3 doubles at the conference tournament and had a 7-10 record at that position. Eischens and Johnson teamed up for a 0-7 record while Eischens and Powers went 0-3 at No. 3 doubles. Powers also went 0-7 at No. 4 singles. Renneberg went 0-2 at No. 4 singles.

The Panthers have to fill the No. 1 doubles spot held by last year's senior duo of Mariena Dearstyne and Kellsey Clark. That duo went 9-9 at that spot and claimed runner-up honors at the conference tournament. Dearstyne and Clark entered the section tournament as the No. 7 seed in doubles.

Providing depth and competing for varsity time will be sophomore Mercedez Bellanger, freshmen Anna Miller and Emma Miller, and seventh grader Abby Morris.

"I want our team to continue to improve throughout the year. We are going to play people all over this year to figure out what works best for our team. I'm so thankful that the girls are willing to play anywhere I put them. They want to win and they know to do that they will have to play different positions," said Morris, who will be assisted by Barb Thomason. "We still have a lot of girls with little to no varsity experience. I've seen them all work hard in practice and can see the drive in them to want to improve. I've been impressed watching the girls so far this year competing. It's fun to coach girls that want to improve and succeed."

A year ago, the Panthers went 4-6 in duals against section rivals and went 4-3 in Mid-State Conference matches, placing third at the conference tournament with 28 points. Pequot Lakes won the conference title with 38 points while Staples-Motley followed with 30 points. For the season, Morris' team compiled records of 20-7 at No. 1 singles, 17-11 at No. 2 singles, 12-16 at No. 3 singles, 6-22 at No. 4 singles, 11-17 at No. 1 doubles, 13-15 at No. 2 doubles and 7-21 at No. 3 doubles. That led to the Panthers' first losing record in dual meets since 2009.

Section 8A remains the same with Crookston, East Grand Forks, New York Mills, Parkers Prairie, Perham, Roseau, Staples-Motley and Wadena-Deer Creek joining Park Rapids in the nine-team field.

Morris is looking for the Panthers to improve on their record and make a run at claiming that elusive section title.

"I'm excited to see how we do when we play teams from our section," said Morris. "It will be difficult as other teams have more experience than we do, but I've seen improvement already in the girls. I think that we can contend in our section."