Nine Won’t Come Easy for Tennis Team at State
Jesuit’s tennis team takes to the road for the state tournament on Sunday, April 24 in an unfamiliar position—underdogs. The smart money is on the Bears of Catholic High in Baton Rouge to derail the Jays’ eight-year run as state champions.
“We match up pretty well with Catholic in a traditional dual meet format,” explains head coach Travis Smith. But the state tournament is not a series of dual meets, like the football playoffs.”
Indeed, when the two teams met in the finals of the McGill-Toolen Invitational Tournament in Mobile back on February 27, Jesuit emerged with a razor-thin 5-4 victory that easily could have gone the other way.
At state, however, it’s not as simple as going head to head. Teams must make a host of strategic decisions based on evaluations of their own team’s strengths as well as those of teams from the state’s four regions before submitting their final eight-man line-ups for the regional tournaments. Those line-ups are comprised of two singles players and three doubles teams.
“Catholic is strong across the board, but they are especially strong in singles,” says Smith. They return the champion (sophomore Nick Watson) and a semifinalist (junior Andrew Bienvenu) from last year’s state tournament. Frankly, we don’t have an answer for that.”
So the Jays will load up in doubles, where they hope to match Catholic’s expected singles dominance.
There’s a good chance they can. Senior twins Jacob and Jonathan Niehaus, the defending state doubles champions, are back as are senior Brandon Beck and junior Trey Hamlin, who lost to the Niehauses in an all-Jesuit finals last spring.
The road to the doubles final will be anything but easy, though, and would likely include a head-to-head battle at some point with Catholic’s formidable No. 1 doubles team of William Aguilard and Stephen Bienvenu, both juniors, who handily won their regional tournament. The Shiell brothers of St. Paul’s, Kurt and Kent, also loom as serious threats.
If the best-case scenario for both teams occurs—an all-Catholic final in singles and an all-Jesuit final in doubles—that may look like a wash to the casual fan. But it means that Catholic only has to burn TWO players in singles to match the points earned by FOUR of Jesuit’s top players in doubles (wins in singles and doubles competition are each worth one point).
“That really neutralizes our depth,” says Smith.
That, in turn, makes Sunday’s random draw process critical to Jesuit’s chances. The Jays will need favorable draws for the rest of its line-up to tally some additional team points.
In singles, junior Graham Buck will be seeded by virtue of his runner-up status at regionals (regional champions and runners-up from the state’s four regions comprise the eight seeds in the 32-entry singles and doubles draws). The seeding increases his odds of a favorable draw.
Jesuit’s other singles entry, sophomore Christian Lacoste, faces more difficult odds. There’s a one in three chance he’ll face a seeded player in the first round, and a 100 percent chance he’ll see a seed (or someone who beat a seed in the first round) no later than the second round. The same is true for Jesuit’s No. 3 doubles team, senior Cristian Archaga and junior Jack Steib.
So what does Smith have to say about the uncertainty surrounding this year’s trip to Monroe?
“Honestly, I’m looking forward to it,” says Smith. “We’ve been the favorite more often than not in recent years, and it’s really hard to play loose when you’ve got the pressure of high expectations on your shoulders. The underdog role is really liberating.”
“And I like my guys. I wouldn’t want to go to battle with anyone else. We’ll just play to the best of our ability and see what happens.”