By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — FAIRFIELD – Names change. Expectations do not for the Fairfield Maharishi boys tennis program.
So even in a season that began with the program starting with as big a change as it has gone through in some time, the end result is still the same as it’s always been. The Pioneers, under first-year head coach Steve Briggs, are headed back on a trip that’s become a yearly tradition over the years to compete in the boys state tennis tournaments.
First up is the Class 1A boys state singles and doubles tournament, which gets under way this morning at Byrnes Park in Waterloo. The two-day tourney will see MSAE representation in both brackets with sophomore Sam Stickels in the 16-player singles field while senior Raphael Gelfand joins freshman Chandre Morales in competing for the Pioneers in doubles action.
Following that, the Pioneers entire team again will travel together for a state-record ninth-straight year to compete in the 1A team tennis “final four.” After beating Grinnell and Pella over the weekend on their home court, MSAE has earned a date with Dubuque Walhert at Waveland Courts in Des Moines in the state team semifinals Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m.
For Briggs, this first time around the state tournament tour is just what he signed up for as head coach of the great Pioneer boys tennis program.
”I’ve been coaching tennis, teaching tennis and playing tennis for 54 years now and I love the competitive thing,” Briggs said. “I think our guys are the underdogs in both the individual and team competitions. I told them last year I like the underdog role. They were the favorites last year and didn’t win, so we have a chance to turn that around this year.”
”People aren’t expecting us to win state in singles, doubles or as a team, but I think we’re in the conversation in all three. I don’t put any pressure on the boys, but I think they understand the role they’re playing as the underdogs going in.”
Stickels, for one, has seemed to embrace the role as the only sophomore in a group of seven other senior 1A district singles champions. Whether it was a chance to send a message or not, Stickels showed his ability to dominate one of those seniors this past weekend as the Pioneers’ top singles player swept Grinnell’s Will Hamilton 6-0, 6-0 in what could be a future matchup this weekend in Waterloo.
”Hamilton got sixth at state last year, his dad’s the coach at Grinnell College and it was just a demolition by Sam,” Briggs said. “I think even Sam was shocked. They played earlier in the year and it was really close. I think that showed Sam that he has a chance this weekend. It’s just a matter of how he handles the pressure of competing at state as a singles player.”
One other player Stickels has seen before this season and may see again this weekend is “city” rival Alexander Punj. The Fairfield sophomore battled Stickels twice this year, dropping two tough decisions including a matchup in district play that left Punj having to qualify for his second-straight state singles tournament as the runner-up to the MSAE sophomore after winning the district crown in his freshman campaign with the Trojans.
Briggs knows all about the immediate success Punj had last year. Prior to becoming head coach at MSAE, Briggs was Fairfield’s assistant boys tennis coach with a specific role as coach of the fantastic Fairfield youngster.
“I sort of mentored him last year and looked over his on-court coaching,” Briggs said. “He’s got all the ability, just like Sam, to knock off almost anybody that he comes up against.”
Whether or not the rivalry will continue deep into the singles tournament this year, however, depends in part on whether Punj can keep his focus on playing top-notch tennis for four highly competitive matches.
“Govi’s been playing a ton of tennis since he was 5 years old, but sometimes he loses his focus,” Briggs said. “We got the quarterfinals last year against Pete Walker of Red Oak and just lost that focus for 15 minutes. That cost him a chance to be the only freshman in the state semifinals.”
The Pioneers’ doubles team of Gelfand and Morales fell just short of winning the district title to Keokuk seniors Dan Williams and Gabe Vandenberg, brother of former Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg. Briggs believes that his doubles team could see the Purple Chiefs again down the line this weekend in Waterloo.
“That Keokuk team finished fifth last year and is super athletic. They do everything together and they might be the number-one seed, but our guys almost beat them,” Briggs said. “Having played them that tough and not having played together for that long I think gives Rapheal and Chandre a huge boost. They could give those guys a run again if they can handle the rest of the pressure of competing at state.”
Next week, MSAE’s road to a team championship will not be any easier. Besides facing a Dubuque Walhert squad that has also qualified for several team tournaments over the past decade, the Pioneers also have tradition-rich Red Oak and top-ranked defending state champion Fort Dodge St. Edmond awaiting them if MSAE hopes to claim a team title for their first-year head coach.
“Fort Dodge St. Edmond has their entire team back this season. They’re the team everyone’s going to have problems with on Tuesday,” Briggs said. “No one else in the rest of the field is totally dominant. I think we have a good shot to get to the finals, but it’s going to be a question of stamina for us to have a chance.”
For Briggs, this season will be very special no matter how it wraps up. The newest head coach of the MSAE boys tennis program took over for Lawrence Eyre, who literally built the Pioneer program up into one of the most dominant in any sport in the entire state before stepping down prior to the start of this season.
Without Briggs, however, Eyre may not have even had the chance to forge a hall-of-fame coaching career at MSAE.
“I suggested to the manager at the Quad Cities Racquet Club in 1978 that Lawrence might be a good person to work there,” Briggs said. “I’ve known Lawrence since we were 12 years old. We grew up in the Quad Cities together. He’s the one who nudged me in the direction of taking over the program and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Now, as he prepares to lead MSAE to state for the first time in his career, Briggs has been more than happy to get any advice he can from his longtime friend. Eyre, in turn, has been happy to share any and all secrets about what to prepare the Pioneer players for over the next few days of state competition.
“I was going to split up our top two players in doubles in the substate team competition and he said I shouldn’t. He said you need those top two horses at the top to get those big wins,” Briggs said. “It turned out that it gave us a really key win. That experience is something that has already contributed in a big way to my success this year.”
“Plus, he tells me which hotels to book and where to take the kids to eat at state. That’s helpful too.”