When Brayley Bazzelle first showed interest in tennis, it was because of a girl.
“This girl I liked played tennis, so I went out one time playing with friends, hoping to get a little bit better,” said Bazzelle, a Northwest senior. “I didn’t want to look like a misfit and I wanted to get as good as I could to impress the girl.”
He didn’t expect to enjoy the game so much, but he joined the Grizzlies’ tennis team as a freshman and now, as a senior, he is playing in his first Class 6A tournament, today and Saturday at Maize South.
All six of Northwest’s team members qualified for state for the first time as Northwest won its regional.
“It’s been a couple years since any guys have qualified for state, and then to have all six, it’s amazing,” Northwest coach Mike Thomas said.
“For myself, I’ve never been to state in anything. Going to state in my senior year, at the end of the year, it’s a big hoo-rah. It’s a great way to go out with a bang,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to be a part of a team, to experience the same feeling at the same time. It’s a fairy tale kind of thing.”
Lack of state experience is a concern. The last thing Thomas wants to see is a just-happy-to-be-here attitude.
He doesn’t think that will be the case, though.
“They’re pretty confident because of how they played (at regionals),” Thomas said. “Hopefully it keeps up the whole way. I don’t think their expectations will be really high, but they won’t be scared of anyone.”
Northwest’s singles players are Seth McDaniel and Austin Awtrey, while the doubles teams are Bazelle and Austin Haase, Dalton Frazier and Andre Wakim. All are seniors, except Wakim, a junior.
Awtrey, who finished second in singles at regionals, has never taken a tennis lesson.
“I wish he would have,” Thomas said. “The potential is so great. I’m sure they’ll see him as a fifth or sixth seed, but they know he’s such a very good player.”
As strong as Awtrey is, McDaniel, a doubles player until this season, has pushed him in recent weeks
“His game has really improved,” Thomas said. “His game used to be all slice and dice. Last year he started working and putting top spin on it and he started mixing things up. He’s had some pretty good wins this year.”
Thomas said that Bazzelle and Haase, if they get on a roll, are tough to beat. A surprise has been Frazier and Wakim, who were Northwest’s No. 3 doubles team.
“They’ve been more controlled, not overhitting,” Thomas said of the duo. “Especially at the net, not going for the big shots. We drill and drill and drill on that. It seemed to finally click in the last couple weeks of play.”
The Grizzlies had a solid regular season, only losing to City League champ Bishop Carroll 5-4 in their dual and 6-3 to Kapaun. Heading into the league tournament, Northwest was third in the standings. The Grizzlies did well enough to finish second overall in the league by putting three of four teams into the tourney finals.
“All year we went over being controlled, having controlled play, not taking big shots but playing the point out a lot longer,” Thomas said. “Instead of hitting the ball hard, throw in some lob shots.”
As well as the team played late, Thomas thought a third- or fourth-place finish in regionals would be great.
“And then as the day sort of took off, things started looking better and better,” Thomas said. “Even up to the end, I thought, maybe a runner-up (finish). Then we kept playing really good and we ended up winning the thing.”
Now the focus is on Northwest continuing that strong play.
“This is all kind of a dream,” McDaniel said. “But again, we’ve been working for this for a long time. We’ve been half hoping, half expecting to make it here…. We’ve hit a point where everything started to click for everyone.”