Coming into the Class 6A boys’ tennis tournament in Wichita over the weekend, schools from Johnson County had won six straight team titles and were heavily favored to add a seventh.
They did just that, with Shawnee Mission East winning its third straight tennis crown and no player outside the Kansas City metro area finishing among the top six places in singles or doubles.
That left Manhattan’s six tennis qualifiers on the outside looking in, with both of the Indians’ highly-seeded teams earning a first-round bye only to face a lower-seeded but highly-talented opponent in the second round.
Manhattan head coach Joyce Allen said it’s always an uphill battle at the state tournament, even for players that have had been dominant all year.
“I feel sometimes like it’s David and Goliath, and Goliath is the Kansas City schools,” Allen said. “It just always seems to turn into a Kansas City meet at the end, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Kirkland Lambert was the Indians’ highest-seeded player, earning a top seed in singles and a first-round bye. He fell to Blue Valley West’s Max Kurzban in the second round, 6-2, 6-2, then defeated Jordan Nichols of Maize, 9-2, in the consolation bracket. Lambert faced Olathe Northwest’s Taylor Ficke in his next match, needing a win to continue on.
Lambert fell in an early hole but battled back to tie the match at 6-6 before rain postponed the match with Lambert holding all the momentum.
When play resumed on Saturday, Ficke recovered and managed to hold on for the win, 9-8 (7-2) while ending Lambert’s weekend.
“It took Kirkland a couple games to get going, and then he finally did,” Allen said. “He was down love-six, then came back to tie it six-all, but then it started to rain. He was in a groove, and Ficke was down and out.
“I hate to say this, but if we could have played that match then, we’d have won it.”
Manhattan’s other top-two seed was in doubles, with the pairing of Jonathan Turnley and Bryce Easton earning a first-round bye and losing to Jake Byrd and Avery Don of Olathe East, 6-2, 6-2, to move to the consolation bracket.
The pair got a win against Maize’s Jacob Schultz and Andrew Wilcox, 9-2, before falling to Olathe Northwest’s Lee Fitchett and Andrew Boyle, 9-3, to end their season.
Allen said it wasn’t a matter of being outclassed in talent, but just a day when the ball didn’t bounce their way.
“There were four or five games that we were up 40-love, and they just dug deep,” Allen said. “We couldn’t put the ball away, we couldn’t hit volleys in. My heart just broke for them.”
Also in doubles, the pairing of Matt Turnley and Ben Turnley had a unique matchup in the opening round, facing another set of twins in Mitchell Samuelson and Alex Samuelson of Blue Valley North. The Samuelsons, seeded third from their regional, ended up beating the Turnleys, 6-0, 6-1, and playing their way into the final, where they lost to Max Katcher and Brett White of Blue Valley Northwest, 6-2, 7-5.
The Turnleys got a win over a top seed in the consolation bracket, defeating Ethan Williams and Cody Teichmann of Hutchinson, 9-5, to earn a match against Shawnee Mission East’s Jeff Larrabee and Matt Schuetz, losing 9-2 to end their weekend.
“We had two sets of twins playing each other, and they were a really good team,” Allen said. “Then we had to play Williams and Teichmann, who were the No. 1 seed, and they beat them. They did a really nice job.”
Camden Adams, competing in the singles bracket, lost his opener to Thompson Tong of Olathe Northwest, 6-0, 6-2, before losing his first consolation match to Hutchinson’s Collin Queal, 9-6.
“Camden had a tough go,” Allen said. “He played really well, but he played two really good players. He moved well, his ankle didn’t bother him, he did a great job. And losing 9-6, he was right in that match with Queal. It’s a huge learning experience for him.”
Despite the tough finish to the season, Allen said the group has nothing to hang its head about.
“I’m really proud of the boys, I think they did a great job,” she said. “I had two boys that had never been there before and the two most disappointed were Kirkland and JT. All of the kids are disappointed. They wanted to play longer and it just didn’t happen.
“I’m disappointed for the boys, but I’m not disappointed in them. They have no reason to hang their heads. They did a great job and I could not be prouder. They exceeded all my expectations, and it makes me really excited for next year.”
Allen said she wants to see her team to work hard in the offseason in preparation for another good year next season.
“They can’t come in and double-fault games away and expect to win,” she said. “That is our big goal, to upgrade everybody’s serves and returns. We can hit baseline to baseline. There’s just part of the formula that’s missing, and I wish I knew what it was.”
Allen did mention she hopes her young team can figure out why early-morning starts have led to quick deficits and sometimes even upset losses.
“We’re just not good morning starters, and we’ve got to get over that,” she said. “We have to learn how to get out of the gate and play better right from the start. I don’t know what the magic potion is, but it was a great season. I am so proud of these boys. They gave it everything they had. I never questioned anybody’s heart or effort.”