By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Over the last decade, the Stillwater-Claremore boys tennis rivalry has seen some epic matches — many of them coming down to a final tiebreaker.
And while Tuesday’s match at Couch Park may not have had the thrill and excitement of matches in years past, Stillwater showed that even in a down year it was willing to fight for the rivalry.
“I thought we did OK,” Stillwater coach Michael Porter said. “This Claremore versus Stillwater dual, coach (Mike) Larimer have had this for over 10 years and we just kept it alive. There’s been years where we’ve been real good and they’ve been down, year’s that we’ve been down and they’ve been real good but most of the time over the years it’s always been real close. It usually comes down to just a few matches with a lot of super tiebreakers.”
In a contrast of styles, Claremore’s ability to defend and run the baseline against Stillwater’s powerful serves proved to be the key as the Zebras earned an 8-0 sweep of the Pioneers in the regular season finale.
“He was really consistent,” said. Stillwater No. 1 singles player Noah Smith, who dropped a 6-1, 6-1 decision to Hayden Phillips. “He just kept hitting it back. I just have to practice more.”
Consistency was difficult for both teams as gusty winds made it tough just to keep the ball in the fences. It also might have helped keep some Stillwater serves in, as well.
“We served better today,” Porter said. “That was big. Jordan (Stine) served real well and Noah has been serving real well, so those were some big improvements for us.”
“You can’t really prepare for it,” Smith said. “It’s just the weather. You just have to go out there and play your game.”
Serves weren’t the problem. It was the return game where Stillwater struggled. Time and time again, players like Jordan Stine would hit rockets just off the line only to see their Claremore opponent hit a seemingly impossible shot right back at them for a winner.
Perhaps that’s why the Pioneers only won 13 games between the eight matches — including Smith and Stine’s 8-4 loss in No. 2 doubles to Phillips and Caleb Cotner.
“We’ve got the serves, we’re finishing at the net but we just have to get our baseline game more polished,” Porter said. “If we’re just a little more polished in our ground game — in our ground strokes and our baseline game — we’d be alright.”
There were some bright spots for the Pioneers. Jun Ti Zhang took two games in the first set against Cotner before falling 6-2, 6-1 in No. 2 singles. He also lost 6-0, 6-0 to Nathan Kuykendall at the sixth singles spot.
Stine also recorded a pair of wins, but never could overpower Kuykendall in the No. 3 singles, losing 6-2, 6-0, while Daniel Huggins dropped an 8-2 match to Trevor Beck in the No. 4 singles. Ty Castoe rounded out the singles matches with an 8-0 loss to Bowe Brewington.
Huggins teamed up with Castoe in the No. 1 doubles, but the senior duo couldn’t get a win, falling 6-0, 6-0 to Beck and Brewington.
Stillwater may not have been able to take any match during the dual against Claremore — who is considered to be a favorite to make it to state — but with regionals scheduled for Monday in Ponca City, Porter said this was the perfect test for his team.
“They’re hosting their regional and everyone on their team will qualify for the state tournament at every spot,” Porter said. “So we knew we were playing a state qualifier at every position today. That means we’re playing good people and we’re trying to get better and that’s who we’re going to have to beat on Monday to get in. ... We just have to continue to get better and hopefully we’ll be playing our best come Monday.”