Williams leads group of six Skiers headed to state tennis tournament
Mary Williams admitted to being a bit intimidated by the atmosphere at the Class 4A state tennis tournament last spring, where as a freshman she qualified as the Aspen High School girls tennis team’s No. 1 singles player.
And that could have played a major factor in her early exit — a 6-0, 6-4 loss to Denver North freshman Mia Oliver in the first round — and her renewed excitement to again test herself against the state’s best this week.
“It was so intense. There were like 30 girls watching our first match and I was so nervous,” Williams said of last year’s tournament. “That’s going to be good for me to see again.”
Williams, now a sophomore, again leads the AHS girls tennis team as its No. 1 singles player when they head to the Class 3A state tournament, which starts Thursday in Greeley, weather permitting. This is the first season there has been a 3A classification in girls tennis.
“I looked at the bracket and I don’t know the girl she is playing, but if she keeps up the way she is playing right now, she will do really well,” AHS coach Lauren MacKay said. “She played really well in the (regional) tournament. There was no match she didn’t play well. So she is looking good going into states.”
Over the weekend in Grand Junction, Williams made it 2-for-2 when she won the regional tournament for the second-consecutive season. Her big victory this season came when she defeated Steamboat Springs High School star freshman Mae Thorp in the finals.
“This new freshman from Steamboat was there and I was accepting the loss ahead of time,” Williams said during Monday’s practice at the Maroon Creek Club. “It was very unexpected.”
Williams, who doesn’t lack height for a sophomore, is first and foremost a volleyball player. There was a time she toyed with the idea of playing lacrosse instead of tennis during the spring, but with a pair of tennis-loving parents decided to stick to the court instead of the turf.
This was especially good news for MacKay, who believes she is a much different player than Williams, at least mentally. While MacKay considers herself a little “cocky” in competition, Williams can struggle to find self-confidence.
“Hopefully, because she is playing so well, she goes into the tournament with a lot of confidence,” MacKay said. “I just hope she goes in and battles. She is the type of player that gives her opponents a lot of credit. And I’m the opposite of that, so it’s hard for me to relate sometimes.”
Williams will face University senior Janna Phansiri in Thursday’s first round.
The end of a dynasty
Regionals weren’t only a big deal for Williams, but for the Skiers as a whole. All six state qualifiers — two singles players and two doubles teams — won their regional title last weekend, helping the team to the regional title. AHS edged Steamboat Springs for the crown; an impressive feat considering the Sailors had won 12 consecutive regional championships entering the tournament.
The first thing a sobbing Bliss Pekkala did was call her mother. This joy was felt by each of the girls, most of whom could barely walk the last time Steamboat wasn’t a regional champ.
“It was super thrilling. It was kind of surreal. I didn’t think it was actually happening,” said Pekkala, a sophomore doubles player. “I didn’t make it (to states) last year, so it was kind of like my second chance.”
Learning to fly solo
Anna Citron, the lone senior heading to state for the Skiers, has been there before. Last season she qualified for the tournament at No. 2 doubles alongside Grace Ferguson, where they lost in the first round to a duo from Eaton.
But, heading into her final season, Citron decided she wanted to try playing solo, and it’s worked out quite well for the Skiers’ No. 3 singles player.
“She steps out on the court and just takes no prisoners. She is not going down without a fight,” MacKay said of Citron. “This whole team and tennis means the world to her, so it’s very important and she’s very excited about it.”
Citron, one of the team captains, has been nearly untouchable all season. She will face Fountain Valley junior Delaney DeMott in the first round.
“She is a good fighter. She will not give up a point,” Ferguson said of her former doubles teammate. “She is really good, and I’m really happy she is playing singles and doing so well, especially since it’s her senior year.”
A tale of two doubles teams
With Citron playing singles this season, this left Ferguson, a junior, to find a new partner. Enter Karina Keller, a freshman who could pass as someone three grades younger and hardly looks like a force on the court.
“She’s got a lot of power, which is great because no one is expecting it. They see this short, little girl walk out on the court and they don’t even think she’s in high school,” MacKay said of Keller. “They technically should play No. 1 doubles. They are a very good team and it was just a matter of their personalities jiving, because they are two quieter kids.”
The duo, which plays No. 2 doubles, struggled early in the season. MacKay said some of this had to do with their passive natures, and it’s taken them some time to learn to find energy from each other on the court.
“At the beginning it was a little difficult because I was so used to playing with Anna. Karina is a lot smaller, but she’s got a lot of power,” Ferguson said. “It was a rough start because we were just getting used to playing with each other. But we have pretty much been undefeated since.”
They have played to their potential much of the season, and could be a powerful pair at the state tournament. They play the Pueblo Central duo of Brittney Martinez and Tehya Gutierrez in the first round.
“They should do well,” MacKay said. “If they can pump each other up and get excited, they are in my opinion unbeatable.”
The No. 3 doubles team of Pekkala and freshman Olivia Burkley, both first time state qualifiers, has a much different persona than that of Ferguson and Keller. In many ways, the two doubles teams are complete opposites.
“They are an intimidating team because they both have strong and loud personalities,” MacKay said of the No. 3 doubles duo. “Olivia as a freshman just has a strong personality. You would think she was a senior on our team the way she talks to the kids and interacts with everyone.”
Pekkala, who played No. 4 doubles last season, and Burkley will face La Junta’s Camryn Gonzales and Emily Ramirez in the first round on Thursday.
“On our first bus ride on our first match we got to become partners and we’ve been kind of on and off again, but I think we work really well together,” Burkley said. “We work really well together and we are usually happy on the court. Even if we are losing, we like to stay positive.”
The 3A state tournament will be played at Centennial Park in Greeley. Play begins at 9 a.m. Thursday, with semifinals taking place Friday. All third- and fourth-place matches and finals will take place on Saturday. Rain is forecast for the area later this week.
When Jamie Schulte revs her engine at the Red Bull Romaniacs, she’ll carry some confidence. This is, after all, a woman who skateboarded from Santa Barbara to Mexico, a “pretty impressive, gnarly 16-day trip,” just because.
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