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High school girls tennis preview: Realignment changes the competition but not the focus

Lone Peak's Daniela Aaron competes against Davis High in 5A tennis at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016.
Lone Peak's Daniela Aaron competes against Davis High in 5A tennis at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Every two years the Utah High School Activities Association realigns its regions and classifications. This process often changes the landscape of each individual region and classification as old rivalries end and new teams enter the fold. It's no different for girls tennis, and this year, the new 6A classification will make an already intriguing field of teams that much more interesting.

“It’s good. I think we will miss some of our old rivals, but at the same time we will enjoy some new competition,” Lone Peak head coach Roger Baumgartner said when asked how he feels realignment will affect his team this coming season.

In the state’s new 6A classification, defending 5A champion Davis faces a difficult road to repeat in the new class. The Darts narrowly edged out Lone Peak to claim last year’s state title and must replace several key players from last year’s championship team, including multiple-time 1st singles champion Whitney Turley, as well as 3rd singles champion Eliza Hafen. Whitney’s younger sister Kenzie, last year’s second singles champion, seems poised to help fill the void left by her sister's graduation.

The Darts' strongest competitor appears to be Lone Peak. The Knights return all but one member of last year’s runner-up squad, including 1st singles runner-up Daniela Aaron who returns for her junior season looking stronger than ever. Her sister Anna will anchor the 2nd singles spot again this year after reaching the semifinals a year ago. The Knights will also move senior Rachel Neeleman from the 1st doubles position she won a year ago to the 3rd singles spot.

“As a staff, we put a big emphasis on being a part of a team. I think that this team has really embraced what it means to be a part of a team, and I am excited to see how it comes together,” Baumgartner said when asked his thoughts on his team.

The 5A classification features many fresh faces looking to make the jump into contention, as well as a dynasty three years running. That dynasty belongs to the Olympus Titans. In recent years few teams in any sport have been as dominant as the Titans' girls tennis team. Olympus has claimed the last three 4A state championships and shows no signs of slowing down. The Titans return a formidable team that features three returners from last year’s state championship team. Olympus does have to replace its top singles player from last year. However, the Titans sport a nationally-ranked returning junior in Emma Jewell, and new coach Jenny Watts is extremely confident in her ability to fill the 1st singles role.

“I feel really great about the team. I think we have a lot of girls who are very excited about tennis, and Emma is one of them,” Watts said.

Aside from Olympus, Timpview returns a strong team after finishing tied for second at last year’s 4A state tournament. The T-Birds return five players from last year’s team and figure to be a real contender by season’s end.

The Alta Hawks also have an interesting team led by two-time first singles champ Emilee Astle, and gifted 2nd singles sophomore Sarah Ovard. With these two leading the pack the Hawks figure to play a role in this year’s title picture.

In 4A last year’s 3A champion Park City makes the jump up in classification but still appears poised to claim another crown. The Miners return an absolutely loaded team that has claimed the 3A title the last two years. Park City boasts five returners all of whom participated in the last two years title-winning teams. This year's squad is led by 2016 1st singles runner-up, junior Livi Rockwood, as well as her sister 2016, 2nd singles champion Gabby Rockwood, and defending 3rd singles champion Taylor Matz.

Despite Park City’s experienced squad, 4A is by no means a one-horse race. 2016 runner-up Ridgeline returns a formidable team led by defending 1st singles champion Naya Tillitt, a sophomore who claimed the title last year as a freshman. The Riverhawks return all six players from last year’s runner-up team, and that experience figures to help Ridgeline contend again this season.

The classification also welcomes strong newcomers such as Sky View who makes the transition from 5A a year ago, and Orem who competed in 5A last year as well. The southern schools are also sure to play a role in this loaded field with Desert Hills returning a solid team after placing 3rd a year ago.

The 3A classification is an especially interesting one, as the state will combine the 1A-3A classifications into one mega-class for tennis. The favorite in this especially large field appears to be Waterford. The Ravens claimed last year’s 2A state championship, defeating largely the same competition they will face in this new classification. The Ravens return most of last year’s team and received an influx of young talent with the arrival of extremely gifted freshman Sophie Christensen who will step into the 1st singles position, while last year’s 1st singles runner-up Tanicha Martheswaran will transition to 2nd singles.

The Ravens figure to face some stiff competition in such a large field, with likely their biggest challenge competitor being an old foe, last year’s runner-up, the Rowland Hall Winged Lions who always seem to reload with talented players. Back-to-back defending 1st singles champion Katie Foley will lead the Winged Lions as she returns for her junior season. Judge Memorial also appears poised to compete as the Bulldogs field a large, talented team.

“I don’t think we have any reason to be overconfident, it’s a very tough, deep classification,” Waterford coach Ken Wade said, before adding, "I’m excited to see how the new kids play, I think we are a pretty strong team, maybe even a little bit stronger than we were last year."