The year 2017 has proven to be a magical one so far for the Clay Panthers.
Over the weekend, the magic continued in the Division II East/Southeast District boys tennis tournament as Nate Hinze and Gage Keller claimed a state berth with their play in Athens against some of the best competition that the state has to offer.
The pair, who obtained a runner-up finish in the Division II Southeast Sectional Tournament Bracket, continued their assault against their East and Southeast District foes over the weekend by claiming the third and final state slot in the district bracket by going 2-1 on the day after receiving a first-round bye.
“It was a pretty emotional weekend,” Blanton said. “I was trying to keep it together during (the final match against Miami Trace) in order to keep Gage and Nate motivated and calm at the same time. To be going to state is pretty unbelievable. I’m happy for them and excited. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to go down and practice on the pro courts (in Mason), and just have a good time and enjoy it.”
Due to their play in the sectional tournament, Hinze and Keller obtained one of the four byes in the D-II District Tournament and were able to advance to the second round, where a contest with Marietta’s Mason Cline and Tyler Wise awaited.
Even though Cline and Wise made quick work of West Holmes’ Jason Abraham and Jake Mullet, 6-2, 6-0 in the first round, Clay proved to be too much for Marietta to handle.
After Hinze and Keller took down Cline and Wise, 6-4, in the opening set of the quarterfinal match, Cline and Wise looked poised to even the score as the duo shot out to a 5-2 lead.
But the senior/freshman combination had other ideas.
Hinze, a Shawnee State men’s tennis signee, and Keller, a young freshman that has played beyond his years, rallied from the 5-2 deficit by taking five consecutive games in a row to take the second set, 7-5, and the match en route to a major victory that officially set their state appearance hopes into high gear following the fierce 22-set affair.
“We came back after a rain delay, and really, it was about calming down, settling in, and playing some good tennis,” Blanton said. “It shows a lot of guts by Gage and Nate to come back from such a deficit.”
In the district semifinals, a clash between Logan Elm’s Avery Clouse and Jonathan Reisinger — whom Hinze and Keller beat by a 6-2, 6-4 tally in the sectional semifinals in Portsmouth — awaited the star duo.
Despite fortunes not being as kind to Clay this time around in a 6-4, 6-3 loss to Clouse and Reisinger, the mutual respect for Logan Elm’s efforts were still there.
“Logan Elm’s good,” Blanton said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for them. We get along really well inside and outside of the courts. We wished each other good luck. There’s a lot of mutual respect there.”
That loss meant that Clay would, again, have to defeat Miami Trace’s duo of Seth Leach and Matt Fender in order to claim Clay’s first-ever trip to the state tennis tournament.
Hinze and Keller, however, proved that they were more than up for the task.
In a back-and-forth affair, Hinze and Keller started and closed the deal strong, as the pair survived a 6-2 loss in the second set by claiming 6-4 and 6-3 victories in the first and third sets to claim the third and final state slot out of the Division II East/Southeast District Bracket and become the first duo of Clay tennis players to ever advance to the state tournament.
“I just told Nate and Gage, ‘You guys have got to trust your shots,’” Blanton said of what he told the pair as the third and final game commenced. ‘Don’t get down on yourselves. You guys are going to take care of each other. Go out there and have fun, because when you are having fun, you all play your best tennis.’ They did that. They had fun on the court. When they joke and cut up, that’s when they play their best.”
With the victorious day for the pair in the books, Hinze and Keller will advance to the Lindner Family Tennis Courts in Mason, Ohio, where the OHSAA Division II State Tournament will be held on Friday, May 26 and Saturday, May 27.
A crazy thing to think of — considering that the duo weren’t even playing as a doubles team when the 2017 season began.
“When I put Gage and Nate together, they were two very good singles players,” Blanton said. “However, over the last few weeks, they’ve become a great doubles team. They’ve learned to communicate, they’re moving together well to cover the court, and they’re discussing what shots to hit and where to serve. They’ve really become a doubles team over the last couple of weeks.”
Jackson finishes one match shy, Allen/Jones duo, Hayes round out strong campaigns
Like Keller and Hinze before him, Wheelersburg’s Drew Jackson also advanced to the district semifinal round, and, despite losing to Juan Navas of Miami Trace, came within one match of making it back to the OHSAA Division II State Tournament in back-to-back seasons.
Jackson, who was paired up with New Boston’s R.J. Hayes in the first round, won in impressive 6-0, 6-0 fashion despite a strong contest from Hayes. The sophomore then proceeded to roll past Chris Montgomery of East Liverpool, 6-2, 6-0, en route to the district semis.
However, Jackson’s Connor Radune, who entered the district tournament as the No. 1 seed from the Southeast District, proved to be too much as Radune defeated Jackson, 6-1, 6-2 to advance to the district finals. Navas then defeated Jackson, 6-3, 6-0 to claim the third and final state slot in the Division II singles bracket.
Still, the 2017 season marks another impressive season for Jackson, who went 25-3 en route to his second consecutive SOC II Player of the Year Award in as many seasons. The junior-to-be holds an overall record of 52-6 so far in a high school career that looks like it will end in illustrious fashion.
The final Scioto County unit to make the field, which was the Pirates’ No. 1 doubles unit of Ben Allen and Nic Jones, fell in the first round to Leach and Fender. Allen and Jones, however, still posted an impressive season in their own right by going 21-5 on the year.
“I just want to say thanks to all of the local coaches in the area for supporting us,” Blanton said. “Congrats to R.J. Hayes, Drew Jackson, Ben Allen, Nic Jones, and Brandon Nibert (Waverly’s No. 1 singles player, who is also advancing to state) for making it to district play.”
A full recap of the Division II and Division III track tournaments will be available in the Tuesday, May 23 edition of the Daily Times.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7