This year’s Eau Claire Memorial boys tennis team can put something on its resume that few others can.
The Old Abes have gone toe-to-toe with state powerhouse Milwaukee Marquette.
And they haven’t just gone toe-to-toe with the four-time defending state champions. They’ve beaten them.
Memorial opened the season tied with Marquette for the No. 1 spot in the Wisconsin High School Tennis Coaches Association state rankings following a 5-2 victory over the Hilltoppers early in the spring. The Old Abes picked up wins in the top three singles flights thanks to Sam Rechek, Mark Pepperl and Liam Obaid. They won at No. 2 and No. 3 doubles with strong showings from the teams of Grant Wolfe and Will Hayes and Stephen King and Andrew Mueller.
“Throughout my whole time playing for Memorial, it’s never even been a possibility to beat Marquette,” Pepperl said. “It definitely fueled us with a lot of energy, beating them.
“Just knowing that it’s possible is really big for us.”
With as much experience as Memorial has in its lineup, perhaps that win was no surprise.
Almost everybody is back from last year’s squad, which reached the team state quarterfinals. That includes the entire singles lineup.
“That’s always the challenge when we come back with depth and strength, is making sure we keep the attitude of wanting to improve,” said Rechek, one of the team’s five seniors.
Rechek is back at No. 1 singles after reaching the second round of the state tournament individually. Pepperl, Obaid and Ethan Beckerman also return to the singles flights after standout years last season.
There’s been a bit of mixing and matching in the lineup this season, with players swapping between flights and between singles and doubles.
“I think we’re all pretty content playing wherever coach puts us,” Pepperl said. “That’s really important, because it’s all about matchups when you’re playing the top schools. So it’s important to experiment and accept that you might be better at a spot that you might not be as comfortable playing, because that might be best for the team.”
Max Loen, Wolfe, Hayes, Danylo Ripeckyj and Mueller all were part of last year’s doubles lineup at state and are back for more this year.
While some of the doubles pairings may be different this year, it’s a group that won’t have much of a problem assimilating with each other. There’s a familiarity with each other’s games that makes getting used to a new duo less tricky.
“There’s a little bit of change with the doubles partners with some new guys coming in, but it’s been pretty smooth so far,” Ripeckyj said.
The Old Abes are 14-2 through their first 16 duals of the season. They’ve split two duals with Marquette, with the Hilltoppers avenging their loss with a 4-3 win at the WHSTCA Classic in early April. Their only other loss came at the hands of Brookfield East — last year’s state runner-up — at the Spartan Invite.
Memorial has won 23 consecutive Big Rivers Conference titles, and once again appears to be the favorite in the league. Their win streak in conference duals hit 66 this week.
Having the cohesion of a team that’s played together for years ensured the Old Abes could pick up where they left off without a hitch this spring.
“We’re pretty connected, and I feel like we have a common goal,” Rechek said. “(Coach Jim Litscher) is great about giving us that team spirit, making sure we know we’re playing for a team and not ourselves. We have that sense of cohesion we need, and I think that’s a really big strength.”
In addition to the Big Rivers streaks, the Old Abes also have another annual tradition: taking a trip down to Madison in early June for the state tournament. Memorial has made 12 straight trips to state.
Their last trip to the state championship round came in 2014. With the cast the Old Abes have back, they think they could have a chance to make a similar run this June.
“We definitely have the potential to aim for the state finals this year,” Ripeckyj said. “We just have to play well, play our game.”