FSHS boys tennis enters state tourney with confidence after winning regionals; LHS doubles team ready for final meet together
photo by: Courtesy photo
Last week, Free State’s tennis team won a regional title for the first time in a decade. This week, they’re looking to take home even more hardware at state.
The Firebirds have been riding their balance and depth all season, and that was definitely on display last Friday at the regional meet in Gardner Edgerton. In doubles, senior Ben Melvin and sophomore George Thornton took first, and Minh Vu and Jake Hedges took fifth; in singles, sophomore Britton Snyder took fifth and Jared Loos took sixth. That meant they all qualified for the Class 6A state tourney, which begins at 10:30 a.m. today at Harmon Park Tennis Complex in Prairie Village and continues on Saturday.
photo by: Chance Parker
“It’s not often that a whole team gets to be there for each other (at state),” Snyder said. “We all showed up and showed out that day and we were able to take home the regional title. Everybody feels great about it.”
Thornton said the regional win “boosts our team’s confidence.” But he also said the team “can’t get too cocky. We’ve got to play our game and come out strong.”
That shouldn’t be a problem, because the Firebirds seem to be at their best at the most important time of the season. In addition to their regional win, they finished as runners-up at the league meet, and several players who had a rough start to the season are hitting their stride now.
Snyder, who is in his first year competing at the high school level, struggled earlier in the year. But he got a boost of momentum from winning the singles bracket during a tourney at Junction City, and now he’s rolling into the state tourney having won 12 of his last 14 matches.
Melvin and Thornton also dealt with some growing pains early on during their first season playing together. They now appear to be on the same page, and they went undefeated during the regional tournament after finishing in fifth place at the Sunflower League tournament.
“We’re hot at the right time of the season,” Melvin said. “At the end of the year, you want to be playing the best tennis, and I think we’re doing that right now.”
It helps that all of the players perform at a similar level on the court, so they can all push their teammates to improve. The players said practices have been competitive throughout the season, and anybody is capable of pulling off a great performance at any time.
“We got a really strong team here,” Snyder said. “Everybody puts in a lot of work, and we all try hard. We all push each other to be better every day.”
photo by: Chance Parker
LHS doubles team ready for final meet together
When LHS senior Drew Dean and junior Cuyler Dunn finished second in the doubles bracket at the Gardner Edgerton regional meet, they punched their ticket to state — the first time either player will be competing on the final weekend of the season.
This was their only season playing together, and they’re determined to make their last event as LHS’ top doubles tandem a spectacular one.
“The whole year me and Drew’s goal was to make it to state. That had been on our minds every single match,” Dunn said. “It is my first time going; I hope it’s not my last. I hope I can get in next year as well, but I’m just going to make sure I try to enjoy every second of it.”
Early in the season, Dean and Dunn had their sights set on a state berth as their primary goal. Dean had also set his own goal of winning a regional match, because he hadn’t been able to do that prior to his senior season. They achieved both of those goals last week at regionals, winning three matches as the No. 2 seed against Olathe South, Olathe Northwest and Olathe East before falling to Free State.
The win over Olathe East in the semifinals was perhaps their highlight of the season. Dean and Dunn won the first set 6-4 and needed a tiebreaker to grab a 7-6 win in the second set.
With the situation getting intense, Dean was responsible for providing the energy. He shouted after every point to keep them engaged throughout the match.
“I think we were both feeling a little tired at that point and I was trying to keep the energy up,” Dean said. “That was like the only time I’ve been yelling after points, and so that was probably my favorite (moment) for sure.”
Dunn said that was his favorite match of the year, as well. And he wasn’t surprised that Dean was the difference maker when everything was on the line.
“He’s the reason that we won that second set,” Dunn said. “It was quite the battle, but he calmed me down and stayed focused. That was one of the matches (that) I think showed why Drew Dean is such a special guy, because he just has the ability to make tennis fun.”
photo by: Chance Parker
This is the only season that Dean and Dunn have played together as a doubles team, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d been a tandem for much longer. In fact, their partnership has been a long time coming.
During the 2019 campaign, Dunn played with a senior as his doubles partner and Dean was Lawrence’s top singles player. Dean wanted to switch to doubles after the season was over, and Dunn was looking for another partner, so the pairing made sense. That offseason, they started training together at the Jayhawk Tennis Center.
But they were denied the chance to play together last spring when the 2020 season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response, they worked even harder this past summer, knowing 2021 was going to be their only shot. They trained together during private sessions with a coach, and they even spent their breaks together, taking trips to IHOP and just talking about their lives off the court.
“We knew what we wanted to do; we knew we wanted to play together,” Dunn said. “There was a lot of intentional time spent working on us as a doubles team, which I think has contributed to some of our success. We get each other so well; we know how to succeed as a doubles team.”
Dean and Dunn have a perfect balance of personalities and skill sets. Dean tends to have a more easygoing mindset, while Dunn is often hyper-focused. But they both do a great job of not letting any one point dictate a match.
“We’re not going to be out there breaking rackets,” Dean said. “We have been used as the example of not letting points get to you, because you want to be able to move on after a point so you can get into the next one.”
So what is the goal for their last weekend together as a doubles team? For now, it is just to get to Saturday after beginning with a bye in the doubles bracket today.
“I’m just hoping we can make it to the second day of state,” Dean said. “And then I’m just going to be overjoyed.”