NORMAL — No high school boys tennis team outside of Chicago and its suburbs has won back-to-back state titles.
Reigning Class 1A champion University High School is halfway toward changing that. On hand to help are four returning state tournament veterans and some hotshot freshmen.
"It would just be a real accomplishment for the senior class," said Coach Mark Bowers of possibly making state history.
"They've lived and breathed high school tennis. That is certainly our team goal. It would be a special thing for the Twin Cities."
Bowers is in his first year as co-head coach with last year's mentor, fifth-year man Jon Friesen. A year ago, the Pioneers scored 28 points to tie Chicago University High for the 1A title. Leading the way was the title-winning doubles team of Josh Friesen, the coach's son, and Carter Burk.
The younger Friesen now plays for Goshen College while Burk (6-4 in singles, 10-4 in doubles) is among three returning three-time state qualifiers along with Dorath Chamarthi (12-2, 6-1) and Thomas Moh (5-3, 12-2). Another returning state veteran is junior Vishnu Anagani (8-1, 9-2).
Bowers believes the Pioneers, off to a 6-2 start, could be stronger than a year ago.
"Depth wise, they are," said Bowers, whose team won Saturday's 18-team Bloomington Invitational.
Having a star-studded 23-man roster is a blessing, but the Pioneers can only enter six men — two singles players and two doubles teams — in the May 18 U High Sectional.
"Right now we're just sorting through possible combinations," Bowers said. "We've got two or three combinations in doubles who could win the state title."
Practices have become more intense with the addition of freshmen Tyler Bowers, the coach's son, and Nihar Mothikuru. The younger Bowers is among the state's top-ranked ninth graders.
"Somebody isn't going to be a part of that six at the end of the season and clearly, they aren't going to be happy, and rightfully so," Coach Bowers said. "They'd be a top player on many other teams around."
To the Pioneers' credit, they don't let intrasquad competition disrupt team unity.
"Our practices have been more intense than in years past," Moh said. "We hang out together outside of practice and matches. It's a family."
"The seniors are like my brothers," agreed Burk.
A three-time sectional singles champion, Chamarthi is the team's co-No. 1 player with Tyler Bowers, according to their coaches.
"Either one of them has a chance to win a (state) singles title," Coach Bowers said. "They trade wins against each other in practice."
U High's top doubles team might include Moh with Tyler Bowers or Chamarthi. It's also possible Burk could team at No. 2 doubles with junior Brevin Knight, a pairing Coach Bowers says could earn a top-four state seeding.
"We could have two teams playing each other in the finals," he said.
This year, Chamarthi has had five different partners in seven doubles matches.
"Dorath is the winningest kid in U High history," Coach Bowers said. "Everybody loves coaching a gamer and he is 100 percent a gamer."
Every year the 6-foot-4 Burk improves rapidly.
"He could end up (at No. 1 doubles) if he keeps improving," Coach Bowers said. "Brevin Knight is easily our most improved player so far. He wasn't even in the conversation last year."
A four-star college prospect, Tyler Bowers has had national success.
"It's great to be around all the seniors who have been through this," he said. "It's great to learn from them and for them to make me better."
A top-three state finish would send U High into Class 2A next season due to the success multiplier. Moving up, however, is unlikely to discourage men motivated to make history.