Daunting district denies Bobcats

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE • Marshalltown senior Sean McWilliams makes a backhand return on the run during doubles play at the Class 2A district boys’ tennis tournament Thursday at the MHS Tennis Courts. McWilliams and Luke McKibben won this first-round match in three sets, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, against Dane Hurst and Parker McNally from Waterloo West.

The benefits of being the tournament host include having a better fanbase and saving on travel expenses.

The hardships of being the closest thing to a geographical middle between Linn-Mar and Ames became painfully clear two rounds into Thursday’s Class 2A district boys’ tennis meet.

The third-ranked Lions and sixth-ranked Little Cyclones scored the top two places in both singles and doubles play and also finished atop the team standings to advance along the postseason trail, leaving host Marshalltown without another day of play.

The Bobcats got two first-round doubles victories and finished fourth out of six teams at the MHS Tennis Courts, coming up three team points and one spot in the standings shy of a berth into the next round.

Linn-Mar led the way with 25 points, Ames was second with 23, and Ankeny Centennial totaled 11 points for third place. Marshalltown (8) finished ahead of Cedar Falls (6) and Waterloo West (2), but the Bobcats’ season is over. Ames will host Ankeny Centennial in Saturday’s preliminary team substate round on Saturday morning, while Linn-Mar receives a bye into the substate finals.

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

Ames and Linn-Mar also split the singles and doubles qualifiers. Timothy Ellis of Ames defeated Linn-Mar’s Luke VanDonslear, 6-1, 6-3, in the singles championship, while the Lions’ tandem of Lucas Huffman and Ben Hediger swept Andy and John Kim of Ames, 6-3, 6-3, for the doubles crown. All four contingents qualify for state.

Marshalltown never made it out of the second round with any of its four entrants, but both doubles teams put up considerable challenges. The Bobcats’ No. 1 pairing of Luke McKibben and Sean McWilliams endured a three-set thriller for a comeback win in their opener, beating Waterloo West’s Dane Hurst and Parker McNally, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, before bowing out to Ames’ Tyler Wierson and H Downs, 7-5, 6-2.

“There wasn’t an easy team in this district at all, and [Waterloo West’s] No. 1 doubles team was really good,” said MHS coach James Christensen. “It took Luke and Sean a little bit of time to figure out how to go after them, and they woke up in the second and third sets, came alive and started working the net a lot better.”

McKibben and McWilliams sought revenge against their Ames counterparts in the second round, but Downs and Wierson were able to duplicate their success from the regular-season meeting that needed three sets to decide, 6-7, 7-6, (10-5).

“We knew they were two very close teams, and that match was even closer than it seems,” Christensen said. “A lot of games went to deuce, but in the real tennis scoring of districts, there were marathon games. We just weren’t able to get that clutch point. We had a lot of break points but couldn’t convert them.”

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

Jacob Rachuy and Sam Brintnall “definitely played the best tennis they’ve played all year,” Christensen said, in advancing through the first round with a 6-2, 6-1 triumph against Waterloo West’s Nicholas Ritland and Andrew Christensen. Ankeny Centennial’s fourth-seeded duo of Jonny McGill and Sam Marold made it through the Bobcats in straight sets as well, winning 6-3, 6-3.

“Sam was great at the net all day and was very effective, and Jacob played the type of tennis we’ve really been wanting to see all year,” coach Christensen said. “Centennial started to overpower them a little bit, and that perfect play we had going on, you can’t always stay in the zone for two straight sets.”

Bobcat freshman Jake Gruening got the team’s No. 2 singles bid on Thursday and nearly fought his way through the first round. Gruening fell in a grueling match with Centennial’s Samuel Densmore, 6-3, 7-5, in his district debut.

MHS sophomore Luke Smith drew a first-round bye, but was greeted in the second round by Ames’ Ellis, the top-seeded singles player. Ellis advanced with his first of two-straight 6-0, 6-0 triumphs.

“Luke had an incredibly tough match and he embraced it,” Christensen said. “He went out to have fun, won some points and hung in there.

“Jack won a lot of matches for us this year as freshmen. I’m incredibly proud of the way he’s played all year long. Today we were missing one shot from him, and that’s the last one — that finishing shot. He was playing against a wall today and we were just looking for that one shot to break through the foundation.

“He was hitting with pace, with depth, but was just a little bit uncomfortable going for the big shot. He didn’t want to take the driver out of the bag.”

In all, the Bobcats went a combined 2-4 in the district meet, finishing ahead of a well-respected Cedar Falls program yet coming up just shy of advancement.

“Moral victory is a good way to put it,” Christensen said. “We went in knowing we were up against some tough competition today. It was a nice consolation prize for the guys knowing they performed well — finishing ahead of Cedar Falls is no small accomplisment — but in the end we were left wanting a bit too.”

The district meet was the final outing for seniors Brintnall, McWilliams and Rachuy, as well as Brennin Davis, Frank Iole, Pierre Milot, Ben Snyder and Austin Tullis. Davis suffered an injury that sidelined him for the second half of the Bobcats’ schedule, and he would have been a part of Marshalltown’s district lineup if healthy.

But it won’t be their tennis that Christensen will miss most down the road.

“All these guys battled through something,” he said. “I talked with the seniors afterward and had them address the team. They’re a special bunch of guys and they’ll be tough to replace, not just tennis play but the way they interact with their teammates.”