HELENA — Helena High boys doubles player Connor Casne-Jones admitted he wasn't even close to qualifying for a Class AA state doubles tennis berth last season.
After he and doubles partner Matthew Abbott lost two consecutive matches in the Divisional Round last season, Casne-Jones grew more determined not to end this season in disappointment.
He partnered up with teammate Clayton Ryerson. Driven by last season's letdown and the chemistry he and Ryerson cultivated, that was enough to propel the tandem to the Southern Divisional boys doubles title.
They punched their ticket to the state tournament defeating Helena teammates Ed Battershell-Carson and Abbott 6-1, 6-3 on Friday afternoon at Lockey Court.
Dillon Ferry and Zach Johnson of Butte defeated teammates Aidan Francisco and Russell Park 6-1, 1-6, 6-2 in the consolation championship to capture third place and also qualify for state.
"Losing in last year's Divisional hurt a little bit," Casne-Jones said. "I thought of myself as a better player than that, and I was motivated by wanting to get to state this year."
Casne-Jones made a push in the offseason to prove to himself he was a better player than last year's early exit indicated.
"This summer, I was playing three hours a day, four times a week," Casne-Jones said. "I've been working hard to become a better player since my freshman year, and it doesn't surprise me that we won Divisionals."
Ryerson, who is left-handed, and Casne-Jones, a right-handed player, have continued to progress as a duo throughout the season. The two players worked on compensating for their contrast in peripheral vision when on the court.
"We try to avoid backhands, try to get our forehands and try to push balls away," Ryerson said. "We just really want to stay consistent, and if we have the opportunity, we try to put the put the ball away."
The symbiotic relationship they built led to more success.
"We've been friends, and that has helped," Ryerson said. "The past two years, I've played singles but decided to play doubles with Connor since the start of the season, and we've been gradually just improving and getting better."
Ryerson, who has qualified for the state tournament for the third consecutive season, said he felt his experience at state would help the two as they advance to the next round.
"I think Connor, and I will give state a good run," Ryerson said.
Helena and Helena Capital turned the divisional tournament into the third installment of a crosstown match with so many of those players involved.
Bengals girls double team Emma Hasquet and Melina Hammer captured the doubles title by toppling teammates Abby Trevor and Riley Coonen 6-1, 6-2. Both doubles team qualified for state, along with Devin Amtmann and Aspen Lovshin of Butte. They defeated Helena's Keaton Normandy and Dani Steinmetz 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the consolation finals.
For the fourth consecutive time this season, Helena's top-tier singles player Gavin Anderson defeated Capital's Ethan Allen, this time 6-3, 6-1 in the singles finals.
Helena's Wyatt Johnson defeated Elijah Scheinz 7-6, 6-4 in the consolation round, while both punched their ticket to state with a third- and fourth-place finish.
"It's pretty difficult, especially when your opponent knows your weaknesses," Anderson said. "I was confident that when I played Ethan again, I would win again. The Southern Divisionals felt like a crosstown match because there were a ton of Capital kids, and every match in Divisionals was pretty entertaining for me and my team."
Capital's Regan Hanson found herself in a similar situation to Anderson in the girls Divisional championship round with her fifth match against Helena's Pilar Santos.
Hanson, who entered the championship round with a losing record against Santos, overcame the challenge by defeating her 6-3, 6-4 to capture the Divisional title and to earn her first-ever state appearance.
"I worked very hard trying to beat Pilar and to do my best," Hanson said. "I worked every day in the summer for three hours working on form."
Admitting to being motivated by beating Santos, Hanson said she just "pushed through" to beat a player she struggled against during the regular season.
"You just have to stay consistent, and push through it," Hanson said. "She hits everything back, and can get everything."
Capital's Catherine Burbidge finished third in the consolation bracket by defeating Helena's Trisha Gouveia 6-2, 6-3.
Bengals coach Lance Bouchee said he has never witnessed such success at Divisonals for Helena.
"In my 20 years, we haven't seen that," Bouchee said. "Our team just had enthusiasm, hard work and lots of good sportsmanship."
Bouchee attributes his team's success to the weekly tennis clinics put on by Brian Verwolf at Last Chance Tennis Center.
"We had weekly tennis classes with them, and two times a week they would go out there and get lessons," Bouchee said.
As the Helena boys and girls prepare for state, Bouchee knows the next step in the playoffs will be a tough transition.
"We are going to get some points at state," Bouchee said. "That is going to be a tough tournament up there, and I guarantee it'll be hard. I am proud of the kids and everyone that played."