DENVER — High school tennis coaches and players have spent quite a bit of time posted up in front of a 50-inch TV monitor showing team scores from the state tennis tournament.
But no school has made more trips to the score TV and stared more intently at the rows of numbers than Cherry Creek and Denver East.
"It's getting close up there," Angels boys tennis coach Mark Thalhofer said before heading back out to the courts of Gates Tennis Center during the second day of the Class 5A boys tennis state tournament on Friday.
Five-time defending team champ Cherry Creek has been the juggernaut of the tennis world, claiming 20 team championships in the last 22 state tournaments. This year, the Bruins have maintained the lead through the first two days of the tournament, with 65 total points, but only by a small margin.
Denver East (57 points), Fairview (51), and Regis Jesuit (44) have lurked closely behind, and going into the finals on Saturday, Denver East — a tennis program that hasn't won a team title since 1968 — is still very capable of claiming the 2016 title.
The Angels have been steadily trying to restore glory to the the sixteen-time state championship winning tennis program.
"Our coaching staff is really amazing," Denver East senior Bryce Viorst said. "Coach Thalhofer has been here for a very long time, and our assistants are great. We've also gotten a lot of new players and over the season we practiced so hard. We just work our butts off — even over the summers — and have been going year round."
In a No. 3 singles semifinal match on Friday, Viorst outlasted a tough opponent in Regis Jesuit senior Erich Nuss in three sets — 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-3 — to advance to the final. The Angels wouldn't have had a shot at the team title had Viorst lost that semifinal.
"I'm a senior, and the past three years I haven't even made it past the first day," Viorst said. "The kid I was playing was not going to give up. He was a really tough, really great player, and last time we played I lost to him in straight sets. But I knew this is the last chance I'll have to get a state championship, and I want to do it for my team and coach."
Viorst is playing against Fossil Ridge freshman Akhil Gupta in the final on Saturday. Gupta, a player who is ambidextrous, took out Cherry Creek's No. 3 singles player Alex Gordon in the semifinals.
East also advanced its No. 2 doubles team to the final, and Angels teammates David Glazer and Patrick Berzins will play Regis Jesuit's duo of Evan Nuss and Emilio Gonzalez-Cruz.
Regis Jesuit was in contention for the team title for a significant chunk of the second day of the tournament, but can't catch Creek at this point.
The Raiders can still beat out Denver East for state runner-up, and advanced all of their doubles teams to the finals.
"It's pretty close right now, but I don't think we were really looking for the team championship," said Regis Jesuit junio Luca Abbott, a member of the Raiders' No. 1 doubles team. "I mean, every year you aim for that, but we've been focusing more on our individual matches so the team can build points together."
Senior doubles teammate Will Dennen added: "We were happy we beat Denver East in our semifinal. That was the best we've played all season, and if we work on volleys, and play like that against Fairview in the final, we should win."
Abbott and Dennen are playing Knights duo Devin Harper and David Zhao in the 5A No. 1 doubles final.
Cherry Creek may be playing in four of the seven finals tomorrow, but the team title hasn't been clinched yet. And if it weren't for the Bruins' No. 4 doubles team of junior Zach Smith and freshman Nick Svichara pulling out a win in the semis, Denver East would have taken the lead on the second day of the tournament.
"Our coaches called today team day and tomorrow is individual day, because today is where all the points are, and tomorrow if we win, we get an individual title," Svichara said. "That also helps us get to the team title, but today is all about the points for that team title."
Smith added: "We haven't been focusing on the points, we've just been focusing on how we've been playing and making sure we're getting the job done for our team."
In the Saturday finals, Smith and Svichara will play Regis Jesuit's James O'Connor and Matthew Mahoney in No. 4 doubles.
Bruins senior Ethan Hillis is playing Overland junior Dawid Kijak in No. 1 singles; senior Robby Hill takes on Fairview junior Ethan Schacht in No. 2 singles; and the No. 3 doubles team of Stone Heyman and Nick Eidler play Regis Jesuit's Matt McCarthy and Gabe Caldwell-Nepveux.
"I think it's very exciting and there are a lot of worthy teams out there," Cherry Creek coach Art Quinn said. "It will be a great finish. I'm pretty calm right now, but the more I think about it ..."
Fairview is also fighting with Cherry Creek, Denver East and Regis Jesuit for a top-3 finish. No matter what, this year's 5A boys tennis team scores have been extremely close and the team race won't be over until the final scores start rolling in on Saturday.
"It's crazy! Creek has been not even one of the top teams, but the top team," Viorst said. "My freshman year it won state at every single position, and every year since then we've gotten closer and closer."
He added: "I feel this is the year we might be able to actually do it. East is looked at as underdogs, and no one ever expects us to be able to pull it off, just because we haven't really been up there with other top teams in the past. But I really think we can do it this year."