For most tennis players, getting knocked out in the sub-sectional round of the WIAA Tournament means their season has come to an end.
That was the prospect facing the No. 1 doubles teams for both Oshkosh North and Oshkosh West least week.
Both tandems — Michael Buege and Justin Xie of West and Aron Kumbalek and Cade Francour of North — had lost their sub-sectional matches at the Fox Cities Racquet Club and wondered if their seasons were over.
“After sub-sectionals, we were just like, our season’s done,” Buege said.
Well, not quite.
The fact that both teams were playing in a talent-rich sub-sectional field and buoyed by strong regular-season performances, both tandems earned special qualifier nods. The two pairings, along with North singles player Brandon Hamm, will open up play at the WIAA State Tennis Tournament later today at Nielsen Tennis Stadium.
“It feels awesome. We worked all season for this — and offseason — to have this finally pay off for us,” Kumbalek said. “We were close to finishing it at sub-sectionals but it didn’t work out so just happy to qualify for state.”
Kumbalek, a junior, and Francour, a freshman, will each be making their first trip to the state tournament.
The pair spent much of the season as singles players for the Spartans — they have just 14 matches under their belt as a doubles team — and their 9-5 record, combined with the fact they didn’t make sectionals may make it look like they are easy prey.
At least, that’s what the duo is hoping for.
“We’re kind of hoping, at least I am, that (opponents) overlook us,” Kumbalek said. “We know what we can do and that would be good if they underestimated us. It would be to our advantage.”
Beyond that, it’s a matter of having a strong mental game that will be key for the North duo.
“We just have to hang in there. If we lose a set or a game, we just have to keep our heads in it and not let it get to us because I think that’s what killed us at sub-sectionals,” Francour said. “Don’t be worried about winning necessarily, just play well. Do what we can do.”
Buege is making his second state trip after qualifying with Andrew Wildish last year. He was hoping to get another shot at the Nielsen courts.
“I wanted to go back and I’m sure Justin wanted to get there for the first time,” Buege said. “It’s kind of a repeat of last season where I was actually the younger one and Andrew (Wildish) was the older one. It’s kind of nice switching that up now. It’s a new experience.”
For Xie, the toughest part may have been the waiting to see if they got the special qualifier spot.
“Knowing we had the opportunity there but not actually knowing if we would get the qualifier was suspenseful,” Xie said. “I think the main thing is keeping cool and you have to keep your wits about you (at state). Once you get angry or once you get down, it’s just downhill from there.”
Hamm also earned a special qualifier last year and was hoping to automatically qualify at the sectionals but lost to Kimberly’s Mitchell Sauder.
But after posting a 14-8 record against a rugged conference and non-conference schedule, he easily earned his trip back to Madison.
“It feels really good,” Hamm said. :I feel like I should have won my match at sectionals, but getting down there is important and I’m glad I got the special qualifier.”
Hamm believes the tough competition he’s faced throughout the year, which includes at least a handful of players in the Division 1 singles field, will help him.
“It really helps going into it to play good players, obviously,” Hamm said. “Now when we get there we know what it takes and we’re used to playing that type of competition so it’s not a big surprise when we get there.”
Having been there before should give Hamm a bit of a boost. He said the biggest thing he learned from his match last season — where he lost in a super-tiebreaker in the opening round — is keeping calm on the court.
“Just really stay calm, don’t get too worried (and) just hit your shots,” Hamm said. “There’s always nerves right away but hopefully I can get over them and just start playing tennis.”