Alex Ilic, Aspen High boys tennis heads to Pueblo, Class 4A state tournament
Alex Ilic spent most of his Aspen High School career playing behind standouts such as Dillon Leasure and Matthew Lambert. Now a senior playing at No. 1 singles for the first time, Ilic has carried those lessons into his final swings with the AHS boys tennis team.
“There have obviously been players above me, and now I can truly be a leader being at 1 singles,” Ilic said from practice Monday at Maroon Creek Club. “I’ve always had the ground strokes down and the technique, but they really taught me how to compete and have fun at the same time. Up until then, it had all been work, work, work.”
That work has paid off, however, as Ilic looks to be among the contenders in the Class 4A state tournament, which gets underway at 9 a.m. Thursday in Pueblo. The Skiers are sending all 11 varsity players — three at singles, plus the four doubles teams — to state after once again dominating at regionals.
“The regional was like the start of our second season and I was a little nervous they would think we just had to show up. But we had to play the matches,” AHS coach Steve Sand said. “We battled through some early nerves or just not playing our best and turned it around late in the first set and won all our matches in the first round.”
All of the Skiers had first-round byes at regionals because of their dominant regular season — including a strong showing at the large Western Slope meet, where they finished fourth to a trio of 5A schools — and a win in their first matches is all they needed to secure a spot in the state tournament.
Most did one better by winning their regional championship. Aspen won the team title with 80 points, followed by Durango in second with 40. Steamboat Springs, typically Aspen’s closest competition, was third.
Ilic happened to be the only one to not win his regional title, losing 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 to Steamboat freshman standout Andy Schuiling in the final.
“I played him earlier in the season and beat him, but I knew he wasn’t playing that good and I wasn’t playing that good. We played again. It could have gone either way,” Ilic said. “I played good; he played good. It was just a flip of the coin. But I still feel like it gives me confidence because I know he’s one of the best kids and I played really good.”
Ilic has finished fourth at state three times — twice at No. 3 singles, and then last fall at No. 2 singles — so he feels he understands what it takes to make a deep run in the state tournament. He will face Cheyenne Mountain junior Joey Geisz in the first round Thursday. Ilic and Schuiling could potentially meet in the semifinals.
“Obviously at 1 singles there is going to be more competition,” Ilic said, “but I still have the same goal in mind of placing and helping contribute to my team and mentoring other kids who have never been there before.”
YOUTH TAKES OVER AT 2 AND 3 SINGLES
Sophomores Christian Kelly and Alex Mosher will play No. 2 and 3 singles, respectively, for the Skiers at the state tournament. Kelly lost in the quarterfinals at No. 2 doubles alongside George Ghali last fall at state.
“It’s going to help me with the nerves, especially, just knowing how it goes,” Kelly said of having that state experience. “I know that everyone at states is a lot better (compared to regionals), but I’m feeling good.”
Kelly beat Vail Mountain’s Troy Rindone 7-5, 6-0 in the regional final. He faces D’Evelyn freshman Phoenix Lee in the first round in Pueblo.
Mosher transferred to Aspen from Houston midway through his freshman year. He’s instantly found success at No. 3 singles for the Skiers, highlighted by his regional championship last week in Grand Junction.
“It’s been real fun. I thought I’ve done pretty well this year,” Mosher said. “I felt pretty confident at regionals. I won, but in the first set of my first match I had a little trouble, but I pulled through.”
Mosher beat Steamboat’s Ethan Paulus 6-1, 6-1 in the regional final. He faces Dawson School senior Ryan Oliver in the first round at state.
CONFIDENCE HIGH AMONG DOUBLES TEAMS
Ghali, a junior, now leads the doubles teams, playing in the No. 1 spot alongside sophomore Liam Sunkel. Sunkel played No. 3 doubles last year with Dylan DeGraff, losing in the first round.
“We really have the potential to win this year, compared to other years,” said Ghali, who finished fourth at No. 3 doubles as a freshman with Chris Gregory. “I think my teams were good, but this year I think I have the best team at the position we are in now. So I’m feeling really good.”
This year’s No. 1 duo hasn’t lost outside of the Western Slope tournament, including a 6-2, 6-2 win over Steamboat’s John Hannaway and Gabe Rabanall in the regional final. They will face Pueblo Central’s James Keating and Christian Guzeman in the first round at state.
“I feel really confident,” Sunkel said. “I think we are going to place top three, probably, if we don’t get first. It’s been a really good year and it’s going to end really well.”
Aspen’s No. 2 doubles team is made of freshman Robert Holton and sophomore Lukee Tralins, who are 10-1 on the season. Tralins played No. 4 doubles last year. Holton and Tralins beat Vail Mountain School 6-2, 6-1 in the regional final. They face Thompson Valley’s Colin Davies and Lincoln Solt in the first round at state.
Aspen’s No. 3 doubles team is made of sophomore Bryce Cordts-Pearce and junior Ben O’Brien. Cordts-Pearce played alongside Tralins at No. 4 doubles last year. They beat Durango 6-1, 6-1 in the regional final and face Discovery Canyon’s Thomas Kleynhans and Landry Jones in the first round.
Finally, the No. 4 doubles team is made of senior Nolan Farry and junior Ethan Godfrey. They are 11-1 this season and won 6-0, 6-3 over Durango in the regional championship. They play Palmer Ridge’s Quinn Turner and Ethan Michon in the first round at state.
A team climb
As impressive as the doubles teams have been top to bottom this fall, there is confidence among the Skiers that they can do well as a unit in Pueblo this week.
“This is one of the most confident years I have been a part of,” Ilic said of the team as a whole. “We are undefeated in regular season and we know we have a lot of depth this year. We are usually lacking in doubles, and I think the doubles are honestly better than the singles this year. We are all pushing each other to do better.”
Last year under coach Gary Quandt, the Skiers finished eighth in 4A, with Kent Denver taking the state championship. Aspen had one of its best finishes in school history in 2016, when it placed fourth. Kent Denver also won the state title that year (as well as 2015, 2014 and 2013). Cheyenne Mountain won in 2012.
“We show up to states every year and see there is a whole new level out there. I try to remind them about that all year, but it doesn’t always work,” Sand said. “4A/5A doesn’t matter for tennis. It’s not like the size of the school matters. It’s where these kids played growing up and the commitment they put in, so 4A has just as good, if not better, kids than 5A, depending on the year.”
The 4A state tournament concludes Saturday. Basalt High School, which had a varsity team for the first time this fall, did not qualify any players for state.
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