Park Rapids girls tennis team enjoys successful season

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It was another successful season for the Park Rapids girls tennis team.

The Panthers finished with an 11-11 record in dual meets, placed third at the Mid-State Conference tournament, advanced to the semifinals of the Section 8A tournament and sent a player to the state Class A tournament for the ninth year in a row. Capping off the season was having senior Julia Smith qualify for the state tournament in singles for the fourth straight year.

It was an up-and-down season for the Panthers as players adjusted to new roles.

In the season-opening North-South Challenge at Park Rapids, the Panthers lost to Pine City 6-1, edged Aitkin 4-3 and lost to Minnewaska Area 5-2.

After dropping a 4-3 decision at Fergus Falls, the Panthers defeated Sauk Centre (5-2), Parkers Prairie (6-1) and Yellow Medicine East (5-2) at a quadrangular meet at Sauk Centre.

Park Rapids opened a quadrangular meet at the Depot Courts by shutting out Long Prairie-Grey Eagle 7-0 before dropping matches to section rival Crookston (5-2) and conference rival Pequot Lakes (4-3).

The Panthers controlled Crosby-Ironton (5-2), Detroit Lakes (6-1) and Wadena-Deer Creek (6-1) in conference duals before falling to Staples-Motley (6-1) and Perham (4-3) in two more Mid-State matches. The Panthers then placed third at the conference tournament with 32 points as Staples-Motley and Pequot Lakes tied for first place with 39 points each.

After a 6-1 loss to Thief River Falls and a 5-2 win over East Grand Forks, the Panthers closed the regular season with a 5-2 win over Parkers Prairie, a runner-up finish at the Thief River Falls quadrangular with 11 points (Thief River Falls took first with 16 points) and two section losses to Crookston (4-3) and Roseau (6-1).

Going 4-5 against section opponents gave the Panthers the No. 5 seed for the section tournament. Park Rapids opened with a 6-1 win over No. 4 Perham before being eliminated with a 5-2 loss to No. 1 Roseau, which edged No. 2 Staples-Motley 4-3 in the section title match.

Smith returned to state as the section runner-up in singles and ended her high school career by dropping both matches at the state tournament.

"The season went pretty good. Of course we wanted a few more wins, but we came together at sections and won our first match and then fought hard against the eventual section champs," said Park Rapids head coach Brianne Morris. "I think for a relatively young team, they did pretty well. It was a fun year and the girls really improved."

In addition to Smith, the Panthers received key contributions from seniors Drew Hilmanowski and Haley MacPherson; juniors Tori Hilmanowski and Olivia Wallace; sophomores Natalie Kinkel, Gracie Eischens, Chloe Johnson and Meagan Powers; freshman Jada Renneberg; and seventh-grader Abby Morris. Freshmen Anna Miller and Emma Miller also saw varsity action this fall.

During the season, Morris had 11 different players play singles and tried 20 different doubles combinations. Those various lineups went 19-9 at No. 1 singles, 17-11 at No. 2 singles, 11-17 at No. 3 singles, 16-12 at No. 4 singles, 18-10 at No. 1 doubles, 10-16 at No. 2 doubles and 15-14 at No. 3 doubles.

Smith received the team's Most Valuable Player award and was named to the all-conference team after going 19-7 at No. 1 singles and 2-0 at No. 1 doubles. Smith was the runner-up at No. 1 singles at the conference tournament and entered the section tournament as the No. 2 seed in singles. Smith lost to Staples-Motley's Izabella Edin in the section title match and went 0-2 in her fourth state appearance to end the season with a 25-10 overall record and end her career with a 113-43 overall record.

Drew Hilmanowski and MacPherson held the No. 1 doubles spot most of the season, going 9-5 at that spot and finishing third at the conference tournament. Both received all-conference honorable mention honors. Hilmanowski compiled a 15-7 overall record at No. 1 doubles and also went 0-1 at No. 1 singles, 1-0 at No. 2 singles and 1-3 at No. 4 singles. MacPherson went 10-8 at No. 1 doubles and 1-5 at No. 2 doubles and had a 2-1 record at No. 3 singles. For the season, Hilmanowski had a 20-12 record while MacPherson posted a 13-15 record.

"We are going to miss Julia, Haley and Drew, not only because they are great players, but because they brought great leadership to our team," said Morris. "Julia has been on varsity since 8th grade. It's going to be hard not to write her name somewhere in the lineup. Drew and Haley have played doubles together for so long, it's going to be hard to not have them playing doubles."

Kinkel also received all-conference honors after placing third at No. 2 singles at the conference meet. Kinkel went 0-1 at No. 1 singles and 14-6 at No. 2 singles while adding a 6-1 record at No. 1 doubles. Kinkel and Drew Hilmanowski entered the section tournament as the No. 2 seed in doubles and ended up placing third. Kinkel had a 23-9 overall record this season.

Tori Hilmanowski played five different spots, going 13-16 overall. Hilmanowski went 1-0 at No. 2 singles, 5-7 at No. 3 singles, 2-0 at No. 4 singles, 2-3 at No. 1 doubles and 3-5 at No. 2 doubles. Hilmanowski placed third at No. 3 singles at the conference tournament and teamed with MacPherson in doubles for the section tournament. That duo entered as the No. 12 seed.

Morris was the Panthers' other section competitor, receiving the No. 13 seed in singles after going 1-2 at No. 2 singles, 1-1 at No. 3 singles and 10-4 at No. 4 singles. Morris also had a 1-1 record at No. 1 doubles, a 3-0 record at No. 2 doubles and a 2-2 record at No. 3 doubles. Morris finished third at No. 4 singles at the conference meet and compiled an 18-11 overall record in her varsity debut.

Wallace and Johnson placed fifth at No. 2 doubles while Eischens and Renneberg placed fifth at No. 3 doubles at the conference tournament. Those four played both singles and doubles this season.

Wallace went 0-1 at No. 2 singles, 2-3 at No. 3 singles, 6-9 at No. 2 doubles and 2-1 at No. 3 doubles. Johnson went 0-2 at No. 3 singles and had a 5-4 record at No. 2 doubles and a 9-7 record at No. 3 doubles. Eischens went 0-2 at No. 4 singles, 0-3 at No. 2 doubles and 8-7 at No. 3 doubles. Renneberg compiled a 0-2 record at No. 2 singles, a 3-4 record at No. 4 singles, a 1-2 record at No. 2 doubles and an 8-6 record at No. 3 doubles.

Powers went 1-2 at No. 4 singles, 1-4 at No. 2 doubles and 1-3 at No. 3 doubles while the Millers went 0-1 at No. 3 doubles.

The Panthers also excelled in the classroom by earning a Silver Academic Award for having a team GPA between 3.50 and 3.74. Smith, Drew Hilmanowski and MacPherson earned all-state academic honors for having at least a 3.75 GPA.

Receiving team awards this season were Smith (Most Valuable), MacPherson (Most Dedicated), Johnson (Most Spirited), Eischens (Most Improved) and Morris (Rookie of the Year).

The Panthers have three key positions to replace, but Morris is expecting the returning players will put another competitive unit on the tennis courts next fall.

"Losing the three seniors and some of the top players in our lineup is going to be hard, but I'm looking forward to next year," said Morris. "Next year we are all going to have to step it up to put a winning team back on the court. But because of our leadership this year, our younger girls know what they need to do and I believe that they will work hard over the summer and offseason to make the necessary improvements. This has been a great group of girls to work with and I know that each of them wants to improve. I'm sure they will have the goal of making it to state as a team next year."