CULVER — Two short seasons ago, La Porte's boys tennis team stumbled to a 5-20 record, albeit capturing the sectional.
The Slicers made monumental strides in those two years. It was embodied in the way this campaign unfolded.
Even though La Porte ended its season with a 5-0 semistate loss to undefeated and three-time defending state-champion Carmel Saturday, the team took solace in everything it achieved this season.
First, a sectional title, after dropping a heartbreaking sectional semifinal to New Prairie, 3-2, last year. They followed by knocking off Duneland Conference power Valparaiso, 4-1, in a regional semifinal, then came back a day later and shocked stellar South Bend St. Joseph, 3-2, to win its own regional, its first regional title in 12 years. At the same time, the Slicers earned 18 victories, two more wins than 2018, and finished one step shy of state.
While its season came to a close in the one-match Culver Academies Semistate indoors at the Gable Tennis Complex, La Porte coach Don Varda reflected on the magical season.
“Two years ago, these boys were 5-20,” Varda said. “Now we're playing in the semistate against the No. 1 team in the state. So I'm extremely happy. Obviously, Carmel is tremendously good.”
The Greyhounds (23-0) asserted themselves early at nearly every position, except No. 2 singles.
That's where Graham Siefker of the Slicers (18-7) pulled within 2-1 in the opening set. He didn't claim another game in that set en route to a 6-1 defeat. Siefker followed by cutting the deficit to 3-2 in the next set. While he ultimately succumbed in straight sets to Ethan Zhang, dropping the second, 6-2, Siefker captured two more games for a total of three games in his match, La Porte's only games won on the day.
“When you play Carmel, you play 20 years of Carmel,” Varda said. “I'll guarantee you every one of those boys have been going to the Indy Racket Club since they were very little. When you go to the coaches' clinic and the SUVs are pulling up and the little kids are getting out, I bet you every one of those kids (that played today) got out of those SUVs. So if they start when they're 4, now say they're 17, he's been playing 13 years. I don't have anybody who's been playing that long full time.”
At No. 1 singles, the Slicers' Andy Emmons lost 6-0, 6-0 to Presley Thieneman, while Alex Ake dropped a 6-0, 6-0 decision to Eli Mercer at No. 3 singles. Carson Stalbaum and Tristen Poe fell 6-0, 6-0 at No. 1 doubles to Jones McNamar and Uday Lomada, and at No. 2 doubles, Liam Wolf and Brock Schultz lost 6-0, 6-0 to Broc Fletcher and John Zirkelbach.
Carmel's enhanced skill level and stalwart serving gave La Porte problems on every court. Most of the spots quickly trailed 5-0 in their first sets.
Despite the lopsided setback, Varda added it was very valuable to play a high-caliber opponent in this type of event.
“Our kids need to see this level,” he said. “This is a win for our program. What Carmel does for us is show us the bar, so these kids can all go back in the winter and all go back to what they're doing, and say, 'Hey, this is what it takes to get to that bar.' This is a tremendous tennis team.”
While the Slicers' collectively lost, Siefker was pleased to capture three games.
So what enabled him to win those games?
“Honestly, it was just attitude,” Siefker said. “My opponent, and shout out to him, he was a great competitor and a great guy, but I think I was having more fun than he was. I was out here yelling for my team, cheering for La Porte and just having fun with the points, so nothing could faze me.”
Siefker continued that this season's La Porte squad had a tight bond, which helped make it special.
"The thing that's really going to stick with me and with a lot of kids on this team is just the camaraderie we all had. This year, we were all kind of a team, as opposed to last year when we were a bunch of individual players. We went from players to this year a team, and our record reflects that and our season reflected that."
At the same time, he praised the Greyhounds.
“We had a really tough opponent,” Siefker said. “Carmel's No. 1 in the state. Everyone on their team is just fantastic. And they were all really good sports, too, so shout out to Carmel.”
The Greyhounds advance to a state quarterfinal against Evansville Reitz Friday at 11 a.m. at Carmel. The Panthers beat Jasper 3-2 in Saturday’s Jasper Semistate. In the other semistate match at Culver Academies, Munster downed the host Eagles 4-1 to also qualify for a state quarterfinal.
The Slicers, meanwhile, say goodbye to two seniors to graduation, Emmons and Poe.
“Those boys literally really improved a lot over the winter," Varda said. "They were going to the club three or four days per week in the middle of snowstorms. They were playing hard. They picked this team up. Andy and Tristen deserve tremendous credit. Because they not only got more skilled, but they literally picked the team up to a new level and made them believe they could win.”
Culver Academies Semistate
Carmel 5, La Porte 0