From behind his slightly smudged plastic face shield, Brian Hayenga laid out the ground rules ahead of a boys tennis dual match between Hinkley and Rangeview Aug. 20.
It took a lot longer for the Thunderbirds’ coach to explain things thanks to the coronavirus pandemic — rules about social distancing, the use of a separate can of balls for each singles player and doubles team and the inability to use scoreboards — but he did so gladly.
Giving the eight members of his varsity team the chance to be active and continue to learn a sport that can be played for a lifetime was the payoff.
“We’re just thrilled that we have a tennis season, even though its short and we don’t have many matches,” Hayenga said. “It’s great for these kids to be out here doing something.”
There is definitely a prevailing sense of gratitude among Aurora coaches that even though the season is not perfect, at least it is one of only four sports in the fall deemed low risk for the transmission of COVID-19 by the Colorado High School Activities Association along with boys golf, softball and cross country.
Schedules have been shortened and regional and state tournaments condensed to single-day, single-elimination formats, but those are minor concessions to actually playing.
“The greatest sentiment is gratitude; just the ability to have a team that can meet and play is something I am so grateful for,” Regis Jesuit coach Laura Jones said. “I know I am not alone. Every single one of those players and coaches is grateful to have this season.”
Grandview coach Jeff Ryan — who also coaches the girls team at the school — put things into perspective for boys players if they had any complaints.
“I told the kids ‘You can whine, but the girls got zero (matches),’” Ryan said, referring to the spring season that got wiped out completely at the outset of the pandemic.
“So nine matches is better than zero, five is better than zero. At least they get a season.”
Veteran Overland coach Arlandus Lowe got to work with his players on a limited basis over the summer — getting only about three hours per week in adherence to Cherry Creek School District mandates — and found a real eagerness in his team once the season got a green light.
“They are excited; they want to compete, they want to play and they couldn’t wait,” Lowe said. “The thing that I really appreciate is once they started, they showed up and they seemed to be extremely coachable. They would do anything that would give them the opportunity to hit the ball and participate.”
Lowe’s team is almost completely made up of returning players, while junior Badreddin Messaudi enters his second season at No. 1 singles and is off to a strong start.
While all tennis teams are glad to be out on the court, there is a tremendously wide range of motivations and goals for programs all across Aurora.
For Regis Jesuit, it is a chance to win a third consecutive 5A state team championship and send an outstanding group of seniors such as Morgan Schilling, Grigor Karakelyan, Jack Carbone and Ryan McCarthy on top.
Schilling won last season’s No. 1 singles state title, Karakelyan finished second at No. 1 doubles with partner Conor Kaczmarczyk (who has ascended to No. 2 singles) and Carbone and McCarthy — who will play with different partners this season — teamed to finish third at No. 2 doubles. Reigning No. 3 singles state champion Cameron Kruep, a sophomore, is back in his same position and No. 2 singles winner Andy Schuiling is now pared with Karakelyan on the Raiders’ top doubles team.
Jones knows the margin for error is decreased with the elimination of the consolation portion of brackets at regionals — where only the champion and runner-up will advance — and at state, where picking up key points by coming back from an early loss to make the third-place match won’t be available.
“When he sees a kid make a dumb decision during a match, my husband, who is my assistant, has the immediate response of ‘there is no back draw,’” Jones said. “There’s not time to have stupid mistakes. You lose a match and you are out.”
Aurora has plenty of teams with competitive singles players or doubles teams with state capability in between — such as Cherokee Trail No. 1 singles player Shawn Springer, who made the state tournament as a sophomore — but on the opposite end is a team like Hinkley, which has played junior varsity the last three seasons and has finally moved up to the varsity ranks.
The Thunderbirds graduated 15 of the 18 players it had a season ago and has just one senior this year, but Hayenga believes the season will be a good one regardless.
“This is a chance to have a good time and to learn a sport that I think is a forever sport,” he said.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports