By BRETT MARSHALL
When two inexperienced freshmen traveled to Kansas City in May of 2010 for the Class 6A state tennis tournament, it was a relatively quiet ride for Garden City High School coach Rod Robinson.
That's when his two rookies — Brian Clarke and Evan Riggs — squeaked into the state meet with the final regional berth.
A year later, as sophomores, the two made a return trip but they were joined for the trip east by senior Fidelix Kyaw.
Now, two years removed from having just the one doubles team make it to the big show, Robinson and the Buffaloes' van will be much more crowded, and much noisier.
All six players — two sets of doubles teams and two singles players — earned their trip to Maize for Friday's first day of the 6A state which will get under way at the Maize South Middle School courts. They qualified as a team at last Friday's regional in Wichita.
The accomplishment is believed to be the first time in school history in which an entire six-man team has reached the state tennis, and Robinson couldn't be happier with how his group of players have competed to earn the distinction and place in school annals.
Clarke and Riggs (26-8) advanced with a runner-up finish at the regionals in Wichita a week ago, their best showing at the qualifying in their three seasons of competing. Brothers Brennan and Denton Keller (29-9) also gained their state entry with a fifth-place finish. Blake Stucky (23-15) and Sebastian Kyaw (23-12) will compete for the Buffs in the singles division.
Brennan Keller and Stucky are the lone seniors on the squad while Denton Keller, Clarke and Riggs are juniors and Kyaw, younger brother to Fidelix, is only a freshman.
"Getting the whole team qualified kinda puts Garden City on a map for tennis," Denton Keller said Wednesday during the team's final practice session before leaving today for Maize. "To us, this has been the goal for the season. I think none of us wanted to be the one staying home this time, so we just kept working and working and all of us got better. It's an awesome honor that you're part of something that's never happened before."
For the younger Keller, earning his first trip to state during his brother's senior season was a goal that was set in motion nearly three seasons ago. Mired on the junior varsity team, the Kellers almost gave up the sport. Then, Robinson came up with the idea before the 2011 season to put the brothers together for doubles. Rather than being singles rivals, they became doubles teammates. And it's worked.
"We finished 15th out of 16 teams in our first big meet in Hutchinson last year," Brennan said. "That wasn't much fun. We knew we had to get better. We've worked hard, everybody else on the team has worked hard to get here. It says a lot for how we wanted to be successful. It's a great way to end my high school sports."
For Stucky, reaching his first state tournament will also be a memory that won't soon fade away. He finished fifth at the regionals while Kyaw was sixth.
"I'm just excited to get to go with all my friends," said Stucky, who had three older brothers who played at GCHS but never reached the state tournament. "I've had my ups and downs, but I hope I'm on my ups this week. I know when I'm playing well, I can play with most of the other singles players. There's no pressure, having a lower seed, so I'm just going to go and try to make it deep into the bracket."
Robinson said that the improvement of Kyaw in his freshman campaign has probably been the "wild card" for the Buffs late in the season.
"He's worked so hard, he's had Fidelix working with him all the time since last summer and through the winter months," Robinson said. "He's just improved so much since the start of the season, it's been impressive what he's accomplished for a freshman."
Kyaw credits his older brother, himself a state qualifier in 2011 in his only season playing for the Buffs.
"He's pushed me not to give up and play hard all the time," Sebastian said of Fidelix. "He told me how hard regionals would be so I just kept pushing and pushing. He's worked a lot with me to improve my forehand and backhand and to get stronger. He's taught me everything. Coach Robinson has helped me with a variety of shots, so I've just gotten better. It's exciting to make it to state my first year."
For the now veteran doubles team of Clarke and Riggs, the juniors are headed to state with a different mindset.
"We've grown the most this year compared to what we did from our freshman to sophomore years," Clarke said. "Our first year, we were just glad to be going to state. Last year, we almost won a match. This time, we want to finish in the top 10 and make some noise. We're playing better, we've become more power players than in the past."
Riggs comes from a tennis family. His mother, Dawn, won a regional tournament her junior year at Garden City and competed in two state tournaments, while his father, Brett, advanced to one state tournament, also playing at GCHS.
"It's pretty cool to have everybody make it this time," Riggs said. "My family is big on tennis, so I get a lot of support. I don't think it adds any pressure, I just use them more to help me. This trip will be a lot more fun. Everybody gets to experience the state tournament and it opens your eyes to see how good teams and individuals are."
For Robinson, he sees this accomplishment as the reward for many long hours of practice going back to last summer.
"I think when we were at the end of the season, I could look ahead and know that if they worked hard, we'd have a chance to get everybody qualified this year," Robinson said. "It's been a special season. They've grown together and I think as one got better, the others got better. They kinda feed off each other. They get along well, they practice hard and they have fun. There's great camaraderie on this team."
Area tennis qualifiers: Scott City will be represented at Friday's Class 3-2-1A tennis tournament at Wichita Riverside Tennis Complex by its two singles players. Juniors Tyler Yeadon and Wyle Yeager finished third and fourth at last week's regional in Cimarron. Yeadon sports a 21-12 record while Yeager is 15-11.
Cimarron's top doubles team of senior Edy Corrales and Tanner Smith will take a 13-8 record into the state meet after finishing second in their regional to Meade's Kelby Ross and Randy Friesen.