Headed into the final weekend of his prep career, Free State High senior tennis player Andrew Craig at least knows what he’s getting into this weekend at Maize, site of the Class 6A state tournament.
Craig first went to state his sophomore year, as a doubles partner with Dravid Joseph. His junior year, Craig qualified for state in singles.
“I remember that first year my nerves were really bad,” Craig said, noting they improved last year, and he expects his senior trip to be even less worrisome.
He’ll feel infinitely better if he can grab a victory today — matches begin at 11:30 a.m. — because wins eluded Craig in his first two trips to state.
The Firebirds’ No. 1 singles player felt like he got a bad draw as a junior, and even though he enters as a No. 5 seed this year, Craig thinks this is his best chance to break through.
“For me the biggest challenge is probably just keeping my mental game intact,” he said.
Craig, who finished fifth at the Leavenworth regional last week, is one of six city tennis players headed to state. Joining him this year is the FSHS regional champion doubles team of Nick Pellett and Richard Lu, as well as Lawrence’s regional singles champ Thomas Irick and the Lions’ doubles team of Matt Grom and Pace Leggins.
Lu wasn’t part of Free State’s varsity team last season, and Pellett’s season ended at a regional in 2011. The teammates both get their first crack at state together.
A junior, Lu didn’t want to make too big of a deal out of qualifying.
“I mean, it’s good, but we’re just gonna try to play well,” he said. “Don’t worry where you’re playing, just play your best.”
Pellett said winning a regional title helped their seeding and gave them confidence. And as a senior, he is looking forward to making his state debut.
Added Pellett: “We’re definitely hitting our peak right now.”
According to LHS tennis coach Chris Marshall, the same could be said of Lions sophomore Irick.
“He is playing his best tennis that I’ve seen so far in his two years here,” the coach said.
Now a two-time regional champ, Irick didn’t place at state as a freshman, when he found out state tennis has more fans and added pressure.
“Last year I learned that the crowds are rowdier,” Irick said. “There’s a lot more energy, so you’ve gotta be mentally prepared for that.”
Armed with that knowledge, Irick hopes to get to the quarterfinals and stand Saturday among 6A’s top 12 medalists.
Now paired with Leggins, Grom went to state last year with doubles partner Connor Schmidt. The competition proved to be relentless and the stage intense. Grom said he and fellow senior Leggins will need to block everything out, and that could help them grab a few wins.
“I think we can shock some people,” Grom said.
As a No. 6 seed, the Lions’ draw will be demanding. Leggins is excited about their chances.
“From what it looks like, it’s going to be pretty tough for Matt and I going into it,” Leggins said, “but we’re hoping to do our best, get a couple wins and do what we can, see how far we can get.”