UCLA men’s basketball coaching great John Wooden liked to call his 1970 NCAA championship team his “Team without.”
The without was Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who graduated in 1969 after leading the Bruins to three straight titles.
Tobin Phelps knows that feeling well.
“It really does feel that way,” the Lewis and Clark boys tennis coach said. “That was an incredible squad that we had last year, and winning the state team title was an incredible honor.”
Luke Brittan, the Tigers’ senior No. 1 singles player, reached the state semifinals and earned the sixth-place trophy. Kyle Fager and Jordan Strandness won the boys doubles tournament and the team came home with the championship.
With both Brittan and Strandness graduated after stellar careers that included winning a state doubles title as juniors, the Tigers came into the season without the big gun at the top of its singles ladder that Britton was for his four-year career.
The cupboard wasn’t bare at LC by any means, but neither was it a prohibitive favorite to win everything in sight. Just a favorite.
“I love the group of players I’ve had this year,” Phelps said. “They wanted to win the league title as much, if not more than any team I’ve had. And they’ve worked so hard to earn it. I’m so proud of them.”
Fager has been the Tigers’ No. 1 singles player all season and enters next week’s district tournament as the clear No. 1 seed.
“He’s clearly been the best singles player in the league, the district and the region,” Phelps said.
But the No. 2 seed?
There was an argument to be made for LC No. 2 singles player Jacob Johnson, who enters the district tournament as the third seed behind No. 2 Kyle Smithgall of University.
“At our league meeting I told (University coach) Aaron Altenader that I wasn’t trying to take away anything from his guy,” Phelps said. “But Jacob has a great record against tough competition. We played down in the Tri-Cities early in the year and he beat the No. 1 kid from Hanford and the No. 1 kid from Richland.”
In the end, the fact that Johnson played No. 2 singles all year worked against him, with Smithgall getting the nod for the second seed.
Boys doubles figures to be a pitched battle. Phelps said any one of seven doubles teams could win the district title.
“It’s all going to come down to who can play the most consistent tennis for the week,” he said. “There isn’t one team that is way ahead of the others coming in. I don’t want to say that parity has come to the league, but there are a lot of teams that are right at the bar this year.”
With Fager and Johnson both playing singles, the No. 1 doubles slot goes to Tigers Ryan Demars and Jason Myers, who spent the league season playing Nos. 3 and 4 singles, respectively.
“I don’t want to say that this is necessarily the best field we’ve had, but I think this is the most competitive field we’ve had in a long time,” Phelps said. “I’m excited to see how this one plays out.”
Kyra Harames of Central Valley put an exclamation point on her claim to being the No. 1 girls singles seed by claiming the Inland Empire title last weekend at Mead High.
The reigning GSL player of the year capped a strong showing by the league in the top singles division.
Harames beat University’s Katie Smithgall in straight sets in the semifinals and knocked off Gonzaga Prep’s No. 1, Lizzy Marcinkowski, in the finals, 6-3, 6-1.
Lewis and Clark’s Abby DeNike and Brooke Fager also enter the district tournament after a strong showing at the IE. The Tigers pair beat Peggy Smith and Brooke Goodwin of Ferris in the semifinals and knocked off Chelsea Li and Quinci Fisher of Richland in the finals, 6-0, 6-2.