Thursday afternoon at the Lawrence Tennis Center, Free State sophomore Michael Swank officially placed himself at the top of the high school tennis scene.
"I guess you could say that," said Swank, moments after capturing the first regional title of his career.
After breezing through his first three matches at the Class 6A regional meet - 6-1, 6-0; 6-0, 6-0; and 6-2, 6-0 - Swank dug deep in the championship match to defeat Olathe Northwest senior J.T. Christian in three sets, 6-3, 5-7 and 6-4.
Clad in his third different shirt of the day, this time an all-black number that dripped with intimidation, the 6-foot-6 righty won the first set and found himself with two match points late in the second. But Christian, a state champion in 2006 and state placer a season ago, was not willing to give up his crown that easily. Inspired by a fiery exchange at the net that saw both players raise their voices about a questionable serve, Christian held on to win the second set, setting up a decisive third set.
While the explosion propelled Christian to victory in the second, it also proved to be his downfall, as Swank channeled his anger into a dominating third-set victory.
"I was able to use that explosion to fuel my fire for the rest of the match," Swank said. "I play a lot better when I'm angry."
Drained by the grueling three-set match, Swank continued to pull off shot after shot that left Christian looking to the sky for answers.
"How does he come up with these shots," Christian continually wondered aloud.
Hard work and poise, that's how.
"I've been fighting hard all season, and he's a great player," Swank said. "To get a win like this over a player like that is a big deal."
With the win, Swank qualifies for next weekend's state tournament in Goddard, but his triumph in the singles division wasn't the only highlight of the day for the city schools.
The Free State doubles team of Charlie Moffet and Blaine Kaehr also reached the finals, but the championship match was postponed until Monday because of rain.
Slow play in the doubles bracket left Free State's top duo waiting several hours to play its semifinal match.
Still, both Firebirds were pumped up to reach the finals, especially after watching their teammate win the singles title.
"That was awesome," Kaehr said. "We got a little stiff waiting around, but it was worth it. I didn't even go to state last year, and now we're in the regional final and the regional championship rests on our match. The pressure's on, but it's exciting."
Although final results have not yet been tabulated, all signs indicated that the winner of the championship doubles match between Olathe East and Free State would win the regional team title, as well.
Lawrence High also enjoyed some success Thursday, as juniors Ryan Abbott and Taylor Seratte won their first two matches of the day and earned a trip to state. The squad will try to improve its seeding for state Monday, in the third-place match.
The two had played only three matches together prior to Thursday, but rolled through the first round, defeating a team from Olathe Northwest, 6-2 and 6-2.
At that point, the wait started and the nerves began to kick in.
However, all of the nervous energy the two suffered through during the break turned into valuable energy on the court. Abbott and Seratte, the No. 5 seed, knocked off the fourth seed from Shawnee Mission Northwest, 6-4 and 6-2, to advance to the semis and secure a state berth.
"It's unbelievable," Abbott said. "It really is. I'm just really excited that we got a team to state. It's one of the greatest feelings I've ever had."
That elation carried into the duo's semifinal match, where it fell, 6-1 and 6-0, to Trevor Bond and Alex Small, of Olathe East.
At one point during the semifinal match, Abbott's whiff on a backhand was greeted by a big smile from Seratte.
"We're going to state," a smiling Seratte said, shrugging off the miscue.
The duo represents the first state qualifier in LHS coach Steve Hudson's time with the Lions.
"I can't believe we're going to state," Hudson said. "That's awesome. I'm used to just saying 'Nice season,' but now we get to play some more."