Much has changed in the past 12 months as virtually all aspects of what had constituted normal day-to-day life underwent change because of COVID concerns and adaptations.
High school boys tennis in South Dakota was no exception, as the entire 2020 season was scrapped just a few days prior to regularly scheduled play.
“The season was cancelled on Friday and we were supposed to start the season on Monday,” long-time Rapid City Stevens’ coach Jason Olson said earlier in the week. “It was a very sad for all the kids who, especially the seniors, who had put so much time and effort into the sport.”
Fortunately, 12months later, the COVID hurdle has been cleared (for the present anyway) and the boys 2021 high school season kicks off this weekend.
“Yeah, it’s so weird to be playing challenge matches since we haven’t played challenge matches for two years,” Olson said. “We haven’t done anything in two years, so it’s just good to get the kids back and be able to play tennis.”
The 2021 Stevens team will be led talented seniors Jamison Pfingston (third in flight one singles in 2019) and Michael Tang (third in flight two singles), and has the potential to be one of the better Raider squads in recent memory.
“It’s exciting. We definitely do have a chance to be good this year. We are pretty deep and it should be really fun,” Pfingston said on Tuesday. “We kind of saw it (season’s cancellation) coming last year, but it was disappointing anyway since we felt we had a chance to win a state title. It feels like forever since I last played high school tennis, so it’s been fun to get back out there with the team and see what we can do this year.”
Despite the 2020 season that wasn’t, Pfingston, a Colorado Mesa College commit and arguably the top player in the state, has continued to hone his skills on and off the court.
“In the past year, I played in a few tournaments and have been working really hard on trying to get stronger by being in the weight room more and working on my endurance, which is a big factor, too,” Pfingston said. “I think my serve and attack game is my strength, and my consistency may be a flaw, but that’s definitely getting better. I’m trying to improve in that area and not rely so much on power.”
For Tang, a Stevens varsity team member since the 7th grade, the chance to close out his prep career as a Raider has special meaning.
“I think playing high school tennis had a really big impact on me in that it helped me act as a leader,” said Tang, a National Merit Scholar semifinalist. “I’m looking forward to the season, for sure. It was so disappointing for the season to be cancelled, but I’ve practiced with teammates like Jamison and worked on staying in shape.”
A heady player who overcomes a lack of pace with a remarkably consistent baseline game and tactical expertise, Tang hopes to convert a strong physical conditioning off-season regimen into a better performance on the court.
“I think I’ve improved quite a bit since I’m in better physical condition than before,” said Tang, who plans to focus strictly on academics in college while pursuing a computer science degree. “My weakness has probably been strength and lack of hitting power, but I think I play pretty smartly on the court and basically focus on what I do best.”
The talented duo will partner up and present a formidable duo in flight one doubles as well.
“Jamison will have a target on his back this year, so as I told Jamison, it isn’t a done deal,” Olson said. “There are a lot of real solid players in the state this year but nobody works harder than he does. And Michael is a totally unselfish kid, the kind who always thinks team first. Even this year, he said he would play at whatever position I needed him at. And he’s one of the smartest kids in the country, a Presidential scholar kid and off the charts smart, and that transfers over to the tennis court.”
CLASS AA PREVIEW
Despite a cancellation of last year’s season and a two-year absence of play, the likely scenario for Class AA boys tennis (the 2021 season will introduce a two-class setup) will follow a very familiar script. Six-time consecutive champion Sioux Falls Lincoln will once again carry the favorite’s tag into the new season. And perennial challengers, Sioux Falls O’Gorman (second in 2019) and Rapid City Stevens (third), will be striving to end the Patriots unprecedented title streak.
“My kids are chomping at the bit to get out there and play,” Lincoln coach Tom Krueger said. “I think they really appreciate what they lost last year and my kids have been outstanding and really having a great time being out there again.”
Though with last year’s lost season for the class of 20 seniors, a bevy of new faces will come on the scene this year, Krueger is confident that this year’s Patriot squad is quality tested and prepared to move on.
“Fortunately, my top 20 guys play pretty regularly year around and though they missed out in some tournaments, there were quite a few that went on over the summer in the Sioux Fall area,” Krueger said. “And so, I think I’m in a pretty fortunate situation with my kids putting in a lot of hours in the offseason.”
Lincoln returns two of the three 2019 state champions returning this season, junior Gage Gohl (Flight 2) and senior Gavin Schmit (Flight 6) who will be joined by Sioux Falls O’Gorman senior Zach Ridl (Flight 4).
“Sioux Falls Lincoln by far is the team to beat,” said O’Gorman coach Don Barnes, who is entering his 34th year at the helm of the program. “They have everybody back. I think we will be pretty solid and I think Stevens with Pfingston and Tang back as seniors will be strong. And I think Washington will have a strong team as well.”
The Raiders seek the school’s first state title since a three-peat in 20o6-2008.
“I give Lincoln the edge. We both lost players, we lost guys like Dawson Segrist who was big for us but they lost some kids that were pretty big, too,” Olson said. “I think it will be Lincoln, us, and O’Gorman who will be right there, but there are some other teams that have great players, too. Fortunately, summer tennis wasn’t really hurt so bad in Rapid because it is such a safe sport so our top kids still put in the time, and I’d say the majority of them have advanced their game.”
BLACK HILLS AREA CLASS AA TEAMS
Rapid City Stevens Raiders
Coach – Jason Olson
Players to watch – Seniors Jamison Pfingston (thirdd, flight one singles in 2019) and Michael Tang (third, flight two singles in 2019), lead an experienced Raider squad. Others to watch include seniors Christian Mueller and Thomas Postma, sophomores Nolan Rehorst and Sam Mortimer and 7th grader Conor Cruse.
Coach’s comment – “We have 34 kids out for tennis this year and they all seem really excited to be out playing right now. Jamison is one, Michael is two, two of the top players in the state, and I expect them to contend for a state title in singles and at the (No.) one doubles spot. Right now, we’ve got nine guys playing for six varsity spots. Fortunately, summer tennis wasn’t really hurt so bad because it is such a safe sport. Our top kids still put in the time and I’d say the majority of them have advanced their game.”
Season opens – March 25, West River Invite dual with RC Christian, Sioux Park (4 p.m.).
Rapid City Central Cobblers
Coach – Andrew Ley
Players to watch – Seniors Rhett Svarstad (probably No.1), Taite Sumption, Carson Versteeg and Noah Gire were all starters in 2019 and will be joined by fellow seniors Cole Jandreau, Carson Ritter and Paul Smith. Possible junior contributors include Matthew Cuny, Cameron Oistad and Charles Steinback.
Coach’s comment – “We have a majority of seniors this year, so it will definitely be a fun year. These guys have been playing for Central for three or four years, so a lot of older talent this year and some of them have been taking lessons over at the Black Hills Tennis Center so I think we are sitting pretty good. Most notably, Rhett Svarstad who played at six for us two years ago has spent the last two years working at the Tennis Center and has become so much better. I think we have the potential to be a good team this year, and as I told the guys at the first day of practice, as a group this is the most talented squad we have had in a while.”
Season opens – March 26 dual with St. Thomas More (9 a.m., Parkview Courts).
St. Thomas More Cavaliers
Coach – Ashely Amiotte
Players to watch – Senior Baxter Meyer (No. 4 singles in 2019) plus Leo Schmid, Michael Levine, Brody Lee, Dhruv Goyal, Shourya Goyal and Hayden Heig.
Coach’s comment – “I am hoping for the boys to have fun a season and grow throughout the season. We have a young group of boys this year that will gain a lot of experience.”
Season opens – March 25 versus Aberdeen Central (6 p.m.).
CLASS A PREVIEW
A year after the girls tennis adapted a two-class format in state tournament play, the boys will get a chance for the very first time to compete for a Class A state title this season, a definite plus for smaller schools and those that perhaps do not have access to year-long facilities and training afforded the larger schools.
“What we do at the high school level is all that Mitchell has,” said Mitchell coach Pat Moller, whose girls team claimed the first every girls Class A state title in October 2019, the last SDHSAA state tennis tournament. “And last year with COVID, our high school summer program wasn’t nearly what it has been in the past. And with our kids not having chances in the summer, we are match-poor and inexperienced though I think a lot of teams, particularly in Class A, are in the same boat so it’s nice to have a chance to compete with other schools in a similar situation.”
Rapid City Christian coach Sterling Greni shares though lamenting the loss of an experienced group of seniors last year denied a shot at a state title with the COVID related season cancellation, shares that sentiment.
“From my perspective, I’m very excited about it,” Greni said. “I think for a school like ours with smaller numbers it gives us a much better chance to be competitive at the state tournament. Mitchell (seventh in the 2019 one class state tournament) is historically strong, and Yankton will be there as will Sioux Falls Christian, but I think we can still contend for state. It’s an outside shot for us but I think we will be up high in the Class A lineup.”
Here’s a brief look at Rapid City Christian and Spearfish, the two Class A team in the Black Hills region.
Rapid City Christian Comets
Coach – Sterling Greni
Players to watch – Junior Joe Schneller and sophomore Andrew Dobbs have varsity experience. Newcomers include sophomore David Suomala, 8th graders Henry Beckloff, Noah Greni and Matthew Suomala and 7th graders Noah Geyer and Noah Greni.
Coach’s comment – “We have a very young team. Overall, we have 16 or 17 kids, which is good, but on the varsity side we are a little thinner than I’d like to be. But we have really good kids and the only thing we lack is size and experience. Nonetheless, I’m still very optimistic on this group. The kids that I have all have played some competitive tennis in tournaments and I’m optimistic that we will have a good season and have an outside shot to compete at state.”
Season opens – March 25, dual versus Rapid City Stevens, Sioux Park (4 p.m.).
Coach – Cain Kolar
Players to watch – Varsity players include Ty Sieber, Braden Yackley, Jensen Damburg, Rudy Isburg, Brock Bacon and Will Becker.
Coach’s comment – “My biggest goal for this year is to develop a culture in the program. I want a culture where the kids are having fun, prepared to compete at a high level, and always improving. I also want to see kids committed to playing in the offseason and improving their game. So far, the attitude of the kids has been fantastic: they have been showing up to practice ready to work and ready to learn. I am excited to see how the season plays out.”
Season opens – March 26 versus Rapid City Christian at West River Invitational, Sioux Park (12 p.m.).