RIVERSIDE, Mo. — A year ago, Cooper Hayes played the top spot in Park Hill’s junior varsity lineup.
The transition to No. 1 this season for the Trojans’ varsity has been swift for a still-growing lanky sophomore. Hayes earned his first win of the season during a 5-1 dual victory against rival Park Hill South on Thursday, March 30 at Park Hill South High School.
After opening with back-to-back losses against state-caliber competition, Hayes received a shot of confidence, hanging on for an 8-6 win over Park Hill South No. 1 Joe Badalucco — a Class 2 sectional qualifier in singles in 2016.
“I think it was definitely an important win,” Hayes said. “I know I’m going in the right direction in these challenging matches.”
Hayes is the sophomore leading a lineup filled with experienced seniors.
Against Park Hill South, Park Hill played without senior Jake McFee — a two-time sectional qualifier and part of a Class 2 Missouri State Tennis Championships doubles team as a junior. The Trojans shifted their next five players up a spot and nearly swept the singles.
Grant Martin (No. 2), Chandler To (No. 3), Ryan Decker (No. 5) and Lucas Cuni-Mertz (No. 6) all recorded wins. Cuni-Mertz played his first varsity match of the season.
“One man out, next man up,” Park Hill coach Rustin Reys said. “Six out of our top seven are seniors, so we’ve been here before.”
Park Hill came into the season off of back-to-back Class 2 playoff appearances, having advanced to quarterfinal play a year ago.
McFee and To were both part of separate state qualifying doubles teams a year ago, but Hayes moved up the ladder in the offseason to claim the top spot. A lingering knee issue forced McFee — the normal No. 2 — out of the lineup against Park Hill South, which lost to the Trojans each of the past two years in the Class 2 District 15 dual championship.
Hayes feels some of the pressure at the top of a lineup with more state aspirations but won’t shy away from the challenge.
“It’s definitely not the match I’ve seen many of playing (No.) 1 JV last year, nowhere near that caliber,” Hayes said. “It was definitely a little bit eye-opening to play some of those guys that I don’t play except outside of high school.
“I know I’ve got to do what I can. I know there’s several guys that would like to be in my spot, so I can’t take that spot for granted.”
Park Hill led early in all six singles matches but didn’t end up with the sweep.
Park Hill South’s Brandon Crabtree rallied late in the No. 4 singles match for an 8-6 win over Matt Zhang. The Panthers have a large freshman class and just one senior in the current top six — a steep learning curve for a traditional power.
Badalucco, Jason Jeong (No. 2) and Andrew Robaska (No. 3) have varsity experience but will continue to adjust playing tougher competition.
“That journey started on Monday with Blue Springs South,” Park Hill South coach Ian Cunliffe said. “It was good to see that we were competitive. Our athleticism let us hang in there, but hopefully, this is a little bit of motivation.”
The matchup against Park Hill — and an 8-1 loss to open the season against Blue Springs South — gave an indication of where Park Hill South sits at the start of the season. No doubles matches were played with the result of the dual decided and slick conditions potentially ready to get worse on a drizzly afternoon.
Park Hill continues to look at its doubles combinations, unlikely to pair the two returning state qualifiers. So far, Hayes and McFee have been teamed at No. 1 with To and Zhang at No. 2. Reys plans to keep looking at the lineup during upcoming tournaments to see how the individual entries might shake out for districts.
“I think we’d fare well in a lot of different formats,” Reys said. “The huge advantage that we have is if I play my No. 6 guy vs. my No. 1 guy it’s competitive. We get better in practice every day because of our teammates, and I just think that’s going to take us places.”
Park Hill improved to 5-1 on the season with a sweep of the Lee’s Summit West Tournament on Friday, March 31. The Trojans won for a second time in the week over Lee’s Summit (5-4) to go with victories against Lee’s Summit West (6-3) and Rockhurst (6-3), last year’s Class 2 state runnerup that didn’t have its full lineup.
McFee and Martin both went 3-0 in singles play to lead Park Hill.
Park Hill 8, Lee’s Summit 1
McFee and Decker gutted out tight singles victories Tuesday, March 29 at Barry Park in Kansas City, Mo. during the Trojans’ first win of the season.
At No. 2, McFee survived a second-set tiebreaker in a 6-2, 7-6 (7-4) sweep, while Decker went to a third set in a 6-2, 2-6, 11-9 win over Conner Lovelace at No. 6. Hayes and McFee also needed tiebreaker to win 9-8 (9-7) at No. 1 doubles with the Trojans sweeping all three.
Hayes lost 6-0, 6-0 to Lee’s summit junior Ethan Henry, part of a Class 2 state doubles team a year ago.