Tennis sectionals

Eau Claire Memorial singles player Molly Hower lunges to get to the ball during a sectional match against Appleton East’s Lily Hansford on April 15 at the Menard YMCA Tennis Center.

Eau Claire Memorial girls tennis players will have a different approach to this week’s individual state tournament than Old Abes’ qualifiers usually do.

Typically this event is a warmup of sorts, a rewarding challenge that also serves as preparation for the upcoming team state tournament. Memorial made the trip down to state as a team every year from 2010 to 2019, an impressive run of dominance for the program.

Unfortunately for the Old Abes, they fell just short of extending that streak last week at the Menard YMCA Tennis Center, finishing two points behind Neenah in the team standings. Now, the six players who qualified for the alternative fall individual state tournament can focus entirely on the task at hand.

“This is it for a lot of us,” junior Molly Hower said.

Hower and fellow singles player Anna Hoitomt, as well as the doubles pairings of Katie Rentzepis/Lexi Budzinski and Chloe Beckermann/Kim Harvey, will compete at the event starting Thursday. The tournament, typically played in Madison, is being staged at Lake Geneva Tennis Club and Badger High School.

Hower and the Rentzepis and Budzinski duo both earned a sixth seed in their respective brackets. The field is smaller than usual since much of the state played on and competed in a playoff in the typical fall period.

Rentzepis can testify to a change in approach for this year’s individual tourney, having qualified for the event last year while playing with Harvey.

For seniors Hoitomt and Budzinski, any of their upcoming matches could be their last.

“There’s always a feeling whenever we go to individual state that you want to give it your all, no matter what,” Rentzepis said. “But this year, especially for the seniors, it’s been a final push for the season.”

Memorial coach Jim Litscher said he’s seen tremendous growth from his team over this abbreviated alternative fall period. The Old Abes defeated the three other state team qualifiers besides Neenah – Verona, Middleton and Ashwaubenon – in head-to-head matchups before being dealt a difficult sectional draw.

“It’s just a nice group,” Litscher said. “They bonded in a quick time. They knew it wasn’t going to be quite the same, but they made it into a really nice season.”

Getting such a large contingent down to the individual tournament is still a strong consolation prize. Hower and the Rentzepis/Budzinski pairing earned automatic qualifiers with their sectional finishes, while Hoitomt, Beckermann and Harvey were special qualifiers.

“We have over half our team going to individual state, which is a huge accomplishment,” Hoitomt said.

“It’s really awesome that we all qualified,” Hower added. “It’s great to be there as a team instead of being there alone. It’s a lot more exciting.”

Hower (14-3) opens with Bay Port’s Allie Brosteau, while Hoitomt (15-4) will play Sheboygan North’s Louisa Damkot in the first round. Rentzepis and Budzinksi (15-4) will face Janesville Parker’s Lydia Quade and Annie Barnes, and Beckermann and Harvey (14-5) will battle Oshkosh West’s Sam Lightner and Kate Conger.

The first round, second round and quarterfinals will all be completed on Thursday. Consolation matches, the semifinals and championships are set for Friday. Singles matches will be played at Lake Geneva Tennis Club and doubles matches at Badger High.

“There’s this energy,” Hoitomt said just prior to the qualifiers beginning their drives Wednesday afternoon. “Everyone’s super excited, everyone’s revved up. We’re just excited to go down tomorrow and compete.”