DENVER -- Four years ago, five freshmen walked onto the practice court at Mountain Vista. Friday, those freshman, now seniors, formed the foundation of a boys tennis program which has all but locked up a top-3 finish at the Class 5A state tournament.
This a program which had its best showing at state last year when it finished seventh. No, it's no giant. Not yet. But it wants to be.
"When it started," coach Jim Flanigan said on Thursday, "we never qualified anybody for state. We'd only been open for three years. In that fourth year, we were better, and we've gotten progressively better every year. We've become a program that qualifies kids every year."
The school itself opened in 2001, so the tennis program is still relatively new. Its growth, especially recently, has been notable.
For the first time this season, the Golden Eagles had a state qualifier at every position. And, following the first day of state competition on Thursday, Mountain Vista sat in a tie for second place with Fairview.
"We've finally got the singles talent that now we're not only a program that qualifies people, I think we're a program that is one of the top three in the state," said Flanigan, who was hired as the program's second head coach when he was 24 and just two years out of college. "I think we'll end up around there, in the mix of the top three. I'd like to be first."
After two days, Mountain Vista is in third with 46 points. The Golden Eagles will have freshman Ben Antonsen on the court Saturday playing in the No. 2 singles final.
Antonsen, for being relatively young, is quite aware of the program's history.
"We know where we've come from and where we've gotten to," he said on Friday, "and we're pretty happy about it."
And he acknowledges that the success has been built on the shoulders of the seniors.
"Really that year they all became freshmen was the year we started to really build the program and get to where we are now," Antonsen said. "Each year, everyone's improved. Everyone's gone up in rankings at the state tournament. I'm happy to come in this year."
Of the seniors, Flanigan said, "Five of them have been together since they were freshman, and I remember when they all came out. It was like, 'That's the foundation of the program.' I was like, 'We're going to be good in the next few years because of these guys.' "
Included in that group is Vignesh Senthilvel, who plays at No. 1 singles, and Michael Shin, the squad's No. 3 singles player. Asked about the program's turning point, Shin is quick to answer.
"When I became a freshman, yeah, I think that was the turning point because we had Vignesh, he was the super star freshman and he took it to 'em at state," Shin said. "Then we all made state, and gradually more and more people made state each year. ... The team has been growing every single year. And it's been getting better."
At this year's tournament, Senthilvel, Antonsen, Shin all reached at least the semifinals. As did Mountain Vista's No. 1 (Vamsi Senthivel and Austin Gruszczynski) and No. 2 doubles (Maciek Lazarski and Alex Boyarko) teams.
"Looking at that jump (from past years), that's pretty big, knowing that we were able to make that turnaround," Vignesh Senthilvel added, "but it was also a lot of hard work from all of us."
But did the seniors see coming when they were freshmen? Did they expect this?
"I wouldn't really say 'expect,' because I would have never expected," Vignesh Senthilvel said, "but now that we're here, I'm on Cloud 9."
Said Shin: "It's amazing. It's really like a feeling of being content. After you've been working, since you were a freshman, so hard -- you've been training real hard every day, having Saturday practice, having practices in the winter. To leave a mark like top-3, I think that's what the coaches' goal was and everyone's goal was. We really did start from nowhere, from having no people go to state to having everyone qualify and finishing top 3."
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Saturday, the No. 1 singles final in 5A will be between Fairview's Ignatius Castelino, a junior, and Cherry Creek senior Zach Fryer. In 4A, Kent Denver junior David Mitchell will face Discovery Canyon senior Luke Lorenz.
Team-wise, Cherry Creek leads the 5A field with 77 points. Fairview is second (69), and, as noted above, Mountain Vista is in third. Regis Jesuit (20 points) is in fourth, and Fossil Ridge (17) is in fifth.
Kent Denver leads the 4A field at 77 points. Colorado Academy (49), Niwot (46), Cheyenne Mountain (25) and Air Academy (18) round out the top 5.