Of the 17 Southern Arizona boys and girls tennis teams starting opening-round state playoffs today and Wednesday, three are hoping history really does repeat itself.
The No. 4 Ironwood Ridge (Division II) and No. 2 Pusch Ridge Christian (Division III) boys begin their title defenses at 3 p.m. today, while the No. 2 Catalina Foothills girls (Division II) will wait until tomorrow to try and rekindle the magic.
All three schools entered this year’s tournament with different challenges moving forward, but share the same goal. The Star spoke with all three coaches as they try to prepare their sides for another deep playoff run.
School: Ironwood Ridge boys
First-round matchup: No. 13 Yuma Cibola
The overview: Not only did the Nighthawks lose four of their top five starters from last year, but they even have a new coach in Tim Berrier. It was a struggle at times to get the new players to believe in themselves, Berrier said, but I-Ridge still clinched the No. 4 seed and had some nice wins, including an 8-1 victory against No. 5 Nogales.
Top player: Junior Ryan Knox. He was the one mainstay from 2013 who carried the team this year with not only his strong serve and well-rounded game, but also his maturity and leadership. “He’s really been like another coach and helped me out a lot,” Berrier said.
Fast fact: With two-thirds of the roster changing, I-Ridge never really had the target on its back and the team never felt like “anybody was coming after us, really,” Berrier said. Instead, No. 1 Catalina Foothills and No. 2 Salpointe are the teams to beat.
The young pups
School: Pusch Ridge Christian boys
First-round matchup: No. 15 Fountain Hills
The overview: Pusch Ridge also lost three key players from last year’s squad, but replaced them with some talented underclassmen, including a freshman — Jarod Bristol – and two sophomores — Davis Towne and Camron Vick. The upheaval had coach David Towne nervous it was going to be a rebuilding year, but the Lions have managed to sustain their elite level of play as they try to win their third championship in four years.
Top player: Bristol. The freshman came out to the squad several weeks late after playing basketball, but managed to fight his way up from the fourth spot to No. 1 in the lineup. The freshman has a dangerous combination of quickness and power in both his serve and forehand, Towne said.
Fast fact: Usually the No. 2 seed has an easy match out of the gate, but Pusch Ridge has to start where it finished last season — against Fountain Hills. The Lions beat the Falcons 5-3 in the state finals in 2013 and this year’s version should “be a great match” as well, Towne said.
The best in show
School: Catalina Foothills girls
First-round matchup: No. 15 Flagstaff
The overview: Foothills has looked like a title favorite since Day 1, winning 117 of the 122 total sets it played this regular season despite losing two starters. “We look at every year as being a new year despite the history and the daunting pressure to repeat with a championship,” coach Kristie Stevens said.
Top player: Junior Kirtana Bhat. Even with her sister, Rachana, now playing at the University of New Mexico, Kirtana hasn’t missed a beat and improved her individual game thanks to her consistent focus. “She brings a lot of confidence to the team and a lot of strength in her own game,” Stevens said.
Fast fact: One of the new faces, senior Noelle Karp, actually played for the team two years ago before missing time due to injury. She is one of just two seniors in the starting six.