Wichita Falls High tennis coach Alexandra McClung knew the risk was great.
And it could have resulted in the Coyotes unrepresented at the state tournament for a ninth straight season.
But McClung couldn’t talk herself out of putting all the Coyotes’ eggs in one basket. She loaded up Old High’s spring lineup in mixed doubles, placing the team’s top two girls with its top two boys.
High risk. High reward.
The gamble paid off. Instead of prolonging the storied program’s state tournament drought, McClung’s choice proved bountiful with both teams qualifying for the Class 5A State Tournament.
Region I-5A champions Hattie Berend and Steven Lee play Frisco Independence’s Claire Callaway and Sanjaya Kodali in the state quarterfinals at 9:15 am Tuesday in San Antonio.
On the other side of the bracket, Region I-5A runner-ups Jessie Stephan and Trooper Denson face Frisco Liberty’s Milla Dopson and Sanjheev Rao at the same time Tuesday.
Sea:HIGH SCHOOL TENNIS: Wichita Falls area athletes at the UIL State Tournament
“I think it’s great we get to represent the school and this program,” Stephan said. “We’re taking Old High back to state. It shows that we have a lot of talent and how much we work together. ”
The four players are the first Coyotes to advance to state since Adam Dockery qualified in boys singles in 2013, losing in the semifinals.
Old High’s lengthy absence from the state tennis tournament would have seemed unfathomable for the state’s high school tennis enthusiasts.
This is a program that has 19 state tennis championships won in either singles or doubles action. It’s the alma mater of Den Bishop, who many call one of Wichita Falls’ greatest athletes has ever produced, regardless of sport.
But Old High’s last state title occurred in 2005 when Travis Steiger and Clayton Cotton teamed to win it in boys doubles.
The gravity of seeing this program return to the state tournament is not lost on the four players who will represent the Coyotes in San Antonio this week.
“We get to uphold the WFHS tennis legacy. It’s been nine years since the last team made it to state from Old High, ”Lee said. “And you know, we only got two more years as a high school before the new schools were built, so I feel like it’s a big achievement, not just for myself, but for Old High tennis.”
McClung started weighing lineup options in January and tried different combinations in early tournaments. She considered letting Denson and Lee play boys doubles, with Stephan and Berend teaming in girls doubles. The latter pairing proved particularly successful, defeating the Amarillo High duo that claimed the Region I-5A championship and advanced to state.
But in the end, she thought mixed doubles was the best opportunity for all involved.
“From the doubles perspective, we had a lot of options because of the amount of talent and just how naturally these kids click with each other,” McClung said. “I sat down at my computer for about two hours, looking at what some other teams were doing and how we would pair up, because if I put those two teams together, we had to get first and second in district and region to get to state.
“It was a high risk, high reward situation. I trusted my gut with it, and here we are. ”
Putting Stephan and Denson together was a no-brainer. That duo has played together during the fall and spring season for the past three years. Their chemistry has been refined during that time.
“We have known each other for so long, since we were little kids,” Denson said. “We love playing together and have a lot of fun while playing. We understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Playing mixed doubles is different because the guy naturally hits harder, so you have to learn to work around it. There’s more strategy in playing mixed than regular doubles because you have to know how to work with the girls. You have to know what kind of ball to hit each player. We understand all of that with each other. ”
The Berend-Lee pairing came by request.
“Hattie and Steven each came to me in the fall about their interest in playing together,” McClung said. “I knew that they had played together before in some other tournaments, and they obviously felt strong enough about their chemistry on the court that they wanted to play together. It was a pairing I had considered as well. I knew it would work. ”
“We’ve been friends for – gosh, forever it seems like,” Berend said of Lee. “This is our first year to play together at Old High, but we’ve played together before. It’s really exciting because we’ve always wanted to play together in high school.
“Guys are more aggressive in mixed doubles, and it’s a totally different style of play, but we’ve learned how to work around that as a team.”
Both Old High teams have a tough draw to open the state tournament.
Berend and Lee are playing the runner-ups from the Region Ii-5A Tournament, although Kodali has strong state experience, competing in boys doubles last year and finishing second with his teammate.
“I think they’re a really good team, but I think we’re a really good team, too,” Lee said. “I believe we can win a state title. It will be a tough match, but I think whoever wins it will eventually be playing for a state championship. ”
Half of the team Stephan and Denson opens against also has state experience. Dopson played in the mixed doubles bracket a year ago, losing in the semifinals to the eventual state champions from Amarillo High.
“We have a really tough draw. They’re the best team from their region and probably in that part of the bracket, ”Stephan said. “We just have to put it all out there. If we lose, we’re out, but if we step up our game and win that match, then we’ll probably end up going pretty far. “
Of Old High’s 19 state tennis championships, none have come in mixed doubles. The Coyotes have two strong chances to change that this week.