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Panthers serve up smooth transition

It was a smooth transition for Brianne Morris and the Park Rapids girls tennis team this season.

The Panthers compiled a winning record for the third year in a row and were represented at the state Class A tournament for the fifth year in a row in Morris' first season as head coach.

Park Rapids, which finished with a 13-6 record in dual meets, capped off the season by sending juniors Julia Renner and Christina Smith to the state meet in doubles. That duo finished fourth at state to become the first Park Rapids doubles team to earn a state medal and cap off another successful season.

The Panthers opened the season with five players who filled varsity spots last season. That group featured seniors Heidi Schaum and Lydia Schaum, Renner, Smith and junior Charity Ridlon.

Filling the other varsity spots were seniors Jeni Simpson and Jill Simpson; sophomores Lindsey Girtz, Hope Johnson and Sarena Kinkel; and eighth grader Julia Smith.

That combination of veterans and first-year players made the Panthers a contender in the Mid-State Conference and Section 8A ranks.

After opening the season by placing sixth with 14 points at the eight-team Park Rapids Invitational (Thief River Falls took first with 27 points), the Panthers opened their dual-meet schedule by defeating Fergus Falls 6-1, dropping a 4-3 decision to Sauk Centre, and defeating Yellow Medicine East 6-2.

The Panthers took third at the eight-team Crookston Invitational with 23 points (Crookston led the way with 26 points) before defeating Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (6-1) and losing to Crookston (4-3) and Pequot Lakes (5-2) in a quadrangular meet at home.

An eight-match winning streak followed as the Panthers won conference matches against Detroit Lakes (6-1), Crosby-Ironton (4-0 in a match that was called because of rain), Wadena-Deer Creek (6-1), Staples-Motley (4-3) and Perham (7-0). The Panthers followed with a 7-0 win over New York Mills.

At the Mid-State Conference tournament, the Panthers finished third with 37 points. Staples-Motley won the conference title with 45 points while Pequot Lakes took runner-up honors with 40 points.

The Panthers followed wins over East Grand Forks (6-1) and Thief River Falls (4-3) and a loss to Pequot Lakes (5-2) by winning the team title at the Thief River Falls Quadrangular with 15 points.

Park Rapids closed the regular season with a 4-3 loss to Crookston and a 4-3 win over Roseau. Going 6-4 against section teams gave the Panthers the No. 4 seed for the section tournament.

The Panthers opened section play with a 5-2 win over No. 5 East Grand Forks before ending the season with a 4-3 loss to No. 1 Staples-Motley. That marked the second year in a row Staples-Motley eliminated the Panthers in the section semifinals.

"I thought we had a good year," said Morris. "I knew we'd have strong singles players, but I was a little concerned about doubles. The younger kids who had no varsity experience stepped up and played well. The girls really wanted to go to state as a team. They were so close."

The highlight of the season was having Renner and Smith win the section title and advance to the state tournament in doubles. The Park Rapids duo won its first two matches at state en route to finishing fourth.

"Julia and Christina played unbelievable tennis at state," said Morris. "I was pleasantly surprised by how well they did at state. It was awesome."

Smith and Renner won the Mid-State title at No. 1 doubles to earn all-conference honors and went 13-0 at No. 1 doubles this season. That duo was the No. 1 seed in doubles for the section tournament and went 19-2 as doubles partners this fall.

Smith was named the Panthers' Most Valuable Player after earning her third consecutive trip to the state tournament. Smith and Alyssa Carlson went 1-2 in doubles two years ago before Smith went 0-2 in singles last season to become the first tennis player in school history to qualify for state in both singles and doubles. Smith also went 6-5 at No. 1 singles for a 25-7 overall record.

Renner earned her first trip to state and ended the season with a 34-4 overall record. Renner compiled a 6-1 record at No. 1 singles and 9-1 record at No. 2 singles.

Ridlon compiled a 17-14 overall record in singles this season, going 4-5 at No. 1 singles, 6-5 at No. 2 singles, 5-1 at No. 3 singles and 2-2 at No. 4 singles. Ridlon was the conference runner-up at No. 2 singles to earn Mid-State honorable mention honors and lost her first match at the section meet as the No. 12 seed in singles.

Girtz and Kinkel went 14-9 as doubles partners, going 3-5 at No. 1 doubles and 10-3 at No. 2 doubles. That duo finished fourth at No. 2 doubles at the conference meet and went 1-1 at the section meet as the No. 9 seed in doubles. Girtz finished with a 20-12 overall record in doubles while Kinkel had an 18-14 overall record in doubles in their first varsity seasons.

Julia Smith finished the season with a 17-6 overall record in her varsity debut. Smith went 3-3 at No. 1 singles, 2-0 at No. 2 singles, 8-0 at No. 3 singles, 2-2 at No. 1 doubles and 1-0 at No. 2 doubles. Smith, who was named the team's Rookie of the Year, finished fourth at No. 1 singles at the conference meet and went 1-1 as the No. 7 seed in singles at the section meet.

The Schaums teamed up to go 4-3 at No. 2 doubles and 1-0 at No. 3 doubles this season. Heidi Schaum compiled a 13-9 overall record by going 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 while Lydia Schaum had a 14-6 record by going 2-1 at No. 2 singles, 1-0 at No. 3 singles, 6-2 at No. 4 singles (including a third-place finish at the conference meet), 4-3 at No. 2 doubles and 1-0 at No. 3 doubles.

The Simpsons teamed up to go 17-13 as doubles partners, including a 1-0 record at No. 2 doubles and a 16-13 record at No. 3 doubles. That duo took third at the conference meet at No. 3 doubles with Jill Simpson receiving all-conference honorable mention honors and the team's Most Dedicated award.

Johnson also had a solid varsity debut by going 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 was the runner-up at No. 3 singles at the Mid-State meet and received the team's Spirit Award.

Also seeing some varsity time this season were senior Sam Boyd, junior Ali Walsh and sophomore Morgan Knott. Boyd went 1-2 at No. 4 singles, Walsh went 2-2 at No. 4 singles, and Walsh and Knott went 0-1 at No. 1 doubles. Boyd received the junior varsity Spirit Award, Walsh was named the JV's Most Dedicated, and freshman Marienna Dearstyne was named the JV's Most Valuable Player.

Looking ahead to next season, the Panthers return a solid nucleus. Finding players to fill the spots of this year's senior class will be the key to whether the Panthers can fulfill their main goal of qualifying the team for the state tournament for the first time in school history.

"We're going to miss our seniors. They provided good leadership and were good role models on and off the court," said Morris. "Our goal next year is to make it to state as a team. These girls want to be the team that goes to state so bad and I want it so bad for them. If the girls put in a lot of time over the summer, I think we can do it."