Milestones are nothing new for the Rapid City Stevens boys' tennis program. The past two decades have seen state titles and individual records fall.
In the past two weeks, for members of the program saw themselves enter rarefied air in Stevens history. Last weekend in Sioux Falls, Ben Anderson and Dawson Segrist recorded their 80th career singles wins, coach Jason Olson won his 400th match with the boys' program, and two weekends ago Jackson Ellis earned his 90th win.
"The milestones are great, but always my biggest thing is the relationships you build with these kids," Olson said. "These kids all become like my kids. When you’re driving 1,100 miles in three days, the hotel rooms, you get to know these kids. You know their lives, their families and what they’ve got going on. I think that chemistry is so important to a team."
Going into the state tournament, Ellis ranks eighth in program history in wins, Segrist is 12th and Anderson is 13th.
All three said they didn't know that they were close to reaching milestones, despite the fact that Olson keeps detailed statistics with where players rank all time.
Olson said he likes it that way.
"When our kids hit a 50 or 60 milestone, they don’t know," he said. "Just like when we go to the state tournament, they don’t know who they play in the first round because I don’t want them to think about it. You can’t control that."
Ellis passed the 75-win milestone during the team's second match of the season, and later got the ultimate bragging rights. He passed his former doubles partner, Andy Guymon, whose 84 wins rank 11th all time.
"I let him know," Ellis said laughing. "He just said congrats, (the rivalry) is friendly."
Anderson said when he started his career he wouldn't have been able to imagine being up there with some of the names that he's currently next to on the all-time list.
"It’s a nice feeling that all these hard workouts over the last four years have paid off," he said. "It’s a very humbling experience to know that I’m on the same leaderboard as some of the greatest who have ever played in the state. It’s nice to know that I can contribute to that list, and add to it."
Anderson and Ellis are seniors, but Segrist still has time to climb the list as he is a sophomore. Still, he said the values of the Stevens program have already worn off on him.
"A lot of people view tennis as a singles sport, but it’s really a team sport. I’m sure everyone on the team would give up a single state championship for a team state championship," he said. "Even when I was little I would have agreed that it’s a single sport that you play for yourself, but it's nice to have a team you can rely on, knowing you’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for them too."
That teamwork has helped Olson to reach 400 career wins. He said it's the most important part of a program that expects to finish in the top five at the state tournament every season.
As another state tournament begins Thursday, he said it's important to reflect on the milestones the program and its players have reached as it guns for another state title.
"It shows how much longevity I’ve been able to have, and what a good program we’ve had," Olson said of his 400 wins. "We’ve had a lot of good players over the years, and if anything, a coach is as good as the program and the players you have in that program. I think our players have had a commitment to success and a commitment to winning over the years.
"Individual goals are great, but that’s not what our team is about. If we don’t win one flight at the state tournament, but we find a way to win the state tournament, that’s more important. That’s my philosophy, it’s never the ‘me’ stuff first, it’s always the ‘we’ stuff first, and I think our kids buy into that program."
From battles with Sioux Falls O'Gorman, to the success of No. 1 and 2 on the Raider all-time wins list, Billy and Corey Paluch, Olson said he's had a lot of great memories through 400 wins. Although he said all of his players become like his children, it was a moment with Olson's own son, Trae, at the 2013 state tournament, that sticks out during his 20 years in charge of the Stevens program.
Jason's father had died a few months before, but his son still charged his way to a win in the sixth flight of singles and the third flight of doubles along with Sean Feehan.
It was Trae's last match that Jason remembers most, because the team state title was coming down to the wire between Stevens, Sioux Falls O'Gorman and Watertown. The Raiders needed Trae to win his final singles match, and he said they got a gift from above.
"That was really special, to be able to coach your kid and have them win two state championships that year. Even though they all become your kids, it was different emotions with that match," Olson said. "He had match point and hit a ball that was going to go out, and a gust of wind brought the ball back. It made it so weird the other kid couldn’t return it. I was definitely thinking upstairs, my dad had something to do with that."
As Stevens prepares for the state tournament, Olson said he thinks the team is ready. Although all four were happy with their individual accomplishments, they all said one number really matters going into the weekend: Stevens winning its fourth state title since 1971.
If not that title doesn't come, Anderson said the program has still taught him a lot, beyond just the 80 wins.
"It’s taught me how to be dedicated to something. If you lose a match you don’t just give up and throw in the towel, you get back out there and try again. It kind of applies to life," he said. "Going into the state tournament (I'm playing) the best I’ve ever (played), so I’m hoping to go in and end with some state titles and end it on a good note."