ITHACA – One school sending six of its players to the state high school tennis championships is fairly unheard of, but that’s exactly what Ithaca High has done this season.
A winner of 57 straight dual matches since 2012 and the last four Southern Tier Athletic Conference titles, the Little Red will have the maximum number of players one school can have competing this week at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center in Queens.
“I don’t ever remember sending more than three players to states before,” Ithaca coach Arthur Falkson said Wednesday as he and his six players — seniors Justin Milner and Kevin Huang, juniors Jonathan Gomes Selman, Steven Carman and Aidan Mackenzie, and freshman Michael Zhao — headed downstate for Thursday’s opening-round matches.
Joining the Ithaca contingent in New York are Horseheads singles player Mike Entry and the Norwich doubles team of cousins Alexander and Colin Stewart.
The seedings were to be determined Wednesday night, with first-round matches scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Thursday. The tournament is scheduled to conclude on Saturday.
Even though tennis is played as an individual sport, the team concept is very strong at Ithaca. Most of the players have been together for several years, including co-captains Milner and Huang, who are making their third trips to the state tournament. This will be Milner’s second trip as a singles player, and Huang’s first.
“We’re pretty excited,” said Milner, who will attend Division II Daemen College in Buffalo in the fall.
“We have a lot of great coaches in the area, and the program is growing,” he said. “And in our section, a lot of other schools don’t have the chance to build up the juniors and give all these players chances to grow, but we have the opportunity to do that here in Ithaca.”
“I think that’s the best part of this whole thing, not just me making it but to have so many from your team going, too,” said Huang, who will take some time off and travel to China with his family to visit relatives over the summer before heading to the University of Illinois in the fall. He said he will not play intercollegiate tennis.
“It helps that we’ve been together for a while now, and we haven’t lost too many starting players over the last few years,” he said. “This year, we’re going to lose a few, but we’ve developed some pretty good bonds and relationships, and that helps a lot. Tennis is an individual sport, but it helps if you have teammates cheering you on. It makes it fun.”
Falkson said the offseason commitment of his players, most of whom don’t compete in other sports during the school year, was key this past season as the Little Red finished 17-0 and dropped just two sets all season, both in matches against Horseheads. He singled out the doubles team of Gomes Selman and Carman, who were down on the depth chart early in the season but wound up winning both the Section 4 Class A title and the state qualifier.
“They really elevated their level of play in the postseason,” Falkson said. “They were fifth and sixth after the initial tryouts, then they started playing at a much higher level in sectionals and state qualifiers.”
Mackenzie and Zhao won the back draw at the state qualifier, securing the third and final states berth.
Milner, the No. 1 singles player all season for Ithaca, lost to Huang in the final at the state qualifier when, after winning the first set, he retired due to injury. He’s been nursing a bad ankle and elbow, but said he will not hold back this week.
“It’s not great, but this is the last event, it doesn’t matter if it hurts,” he said. “I’m playing all I can. Whatever happens, it happens.”
Milner reached the round of 16 last season before falling to the eventual state champion, top-seeded sophomore Matt Gamble, from Webster-Schroeder in Section 5. He said his goal is to go one step further this time around.
“The furthest that any IHS player has gotten is the quarterfinals, so that’s my goal,” he said.
Huang doesn’t have a definite goal in mind, but just hopes to play his best.
“When you get to that level (states), it’s already a great accomplishment,” he said, “but when you’re there, you play as well as you can and hope you do well. There’s not much else you can do beyond that.”
Last year, Huang and Zhao teamed up for doubles and lost in the first round, then were beaten in their consolation opener. The Stewarts won their opening-round match a year ago before falling to Danny Miron and Nicholai Westergaard, of Fayetteville-Manlius, in the round of 16.