Every point was crucial Monday night.
Camdenton played host to Ozark Conference rival Lebanon in the opening round of team district play and it was a battle from start to finish with several hard-fought and tightly contested matches. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Yellowjackets won the majority of them in a 5-3 win to advance to the district semifinals.
It is always tough to lose the close ones and especially to a team that the Lakers beat twice earlier in the year, but Camdenton coach Kirk Richey took some time to appreciate the level of competition on display where nothing could be taken for granted.
“We respect Lebanon so much and Coach Ron Crowell is a great coach and his kids compete year in and year out,” Richey said of the familiar foe. “I cannot say enough about him and his program so to see them go on to play Springfield Central tomorrow, this is about as good as we could have it on a night like this to lose in a match that came down like that.”
Close it was indeed.
In doubles play, the duo of Grant Burton and Sid Ketcham fell in the No. 1 match 9-8 (2) after losing the overtime set 7-2, the team of Luke Haas and Drew VanHook won the No. 2 match 8-2 and the team of Matthew Gahn and Josiah Scheidemantle dropped an 8-5 decision in the No. 3 spot.
Trailing 2-1 after the doubles round, Camdenton nearly closed the gap in singles play with the district format being a best-of-three style match where each set is played to six points. Burton cruised to 6-0 and 6-1 wins in the No. 1 position, No. 2 VanHook fell 6-3 and 6-2, No. 3 Haas dropped both sets 6-0, No. 5 Gahn fell by final scores of 6-3 and 6-2 and No. 6 Scheidemantle won his match with scores of 6-1 and 6-2. Ketcham represented the Lakers at the No. 4 spot and won his first set 6-4 while losing the second set, but he did not get to finish his match with Lebanon sealing the win before the bout concluded.
“It all boiled down to that No. 1 doubles match with Coach Crowell’s two boys and they made All-Conference for a reason,” Richey said of the Lebanon duo. “It is really easy to say Drew lost his singles match and that is why we lost, but no it really came down to that No. 1 doubles match because I know we have beaten them twice this year already... and they just pulled it out. Grant had some issues with his back, but we were just not real consistent.”
Burton suffered a back injury in the championship singles match at the Waynesville Tournament on Friday and according to Richey, it did not affect his serves or forehand, but it was hard for him to pivot with the backhand.
“I was not moving very well, but I got stretched out a little bit, was feeling a little better and had a good strategy in singles so it worked out for me,” Burton said of the nagging injury. “I really just wanted to play like Serena Williams. She just hits the ball super hard every shot and tries to end the point as quickly as possible so that was really my strategy.”
It was also Senior Night at Camdenton and it also proved to be the last time all eight Laker seniors would get to compete on their home courts and compete together as a complete team. Despite coming up short in the final team score, seniors like Burton and Scheidemantle got to walk out on top in their final home outing with wins in singles play.
“It was difficult because a lot of my friends were watching me and I kinda knew it was probably going to be my last (team) game because we were down 4-1 at the time,” Scheidemanlte said of soaking in the moment. It is difficult to focus on the game when I know it might be my last.”
Still, the senior got the job done. Burton made the most of his singles match as well.
“I have been playing tennis for half of my life since I was nine years-old and this was the first time I got to play on a team,” Burton said of his Laker career. “So after four years of playing No. 1 here, it was a good end to my final season here and I’m looking forward to being successful in college.”
Richey certainly did not hesitate to commemorate everything Burton has done for the program.
“To be a No. 1 player for four years in a row in a Class 2 program is an amazing testament to the work he has put in and I am proud of him,” the coach remarked. “This year he is 17-3 on the season as a singles player, but besides that the way he rallies the kids... he is the one that holds us together and he is the one that always talks about next point and to be playing our best tennis.
“Grant is irreplaceable. Not only are we losing eight of our top 11 players but most importantly that No. 1 spot Grant has held for years is going to be a big learning curve for us. I cannot say enough about Grant, his leadership and what he does for our team,” Richey added.
The Lakers are not quite done just yet though as they still have individual singles and doubles districts left to play. The action will get underway Saturday morning at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield and first serves are scheduled for 9 a.m. The top two singles players and doubles teams will advance to the sectional round on Wednesday at Bethel Park in Columbia.
Saturday is also the night of Camdenton’s prom, but Richey thinks his players will be focused on the task at hand in the morning.
“Maybe tonight it felt more like a dual match and they thought, ‘Oh well this point or that game someone will usually pick up.’ But I think they saw the finality of it tonight,” Richey said of the team district match. “One thing we are going to focus on all week will be trying to get across to them that this is it. Either you win or you go to prom and you’re done. With potentially five out of our seniors playing on Saturday, it should be a big deal to them so we are really going to hammer that home in practice the rest of the week.”
Burton, for one, seems to be up to the challenge.
“Just keep playing smart tennis which has been a common theme of this year’s season,” Burton said of his preparation. “Play smart, get out there, relax and have some fun. That is going to be my strategy going into districts.”
Time will soon tell what the rest of the season has in store.