DENVER — When Mountain Vista girls tennis coach Jim Flanigan looks at his program, he breaks it down into two histories: Before Casey, and After Casey.
That'd be Casey Zhong, the Golden Eagles' top player over the past four seasons who has placed at the Class 5A state tournament twice, and now made three consecutive trips to the semifinals in No. 1 Singles.
Since Zhong joined the program in 2014, she has raised the team to prominence, helping them finish in the top 5 the past two seasons. She has led them to four regional titles, and three Continental League championships.
She was also the program's first all-conference player at No. 1 Singles, and is its first singles placer at state.
"To have that type of player validate the program and come into the program the way that she did is just really a gift from god," Flanigan said. "And she loves being part of the team. ... She loves playing high school tennis. Which is the type of kid you don't get all that often.
"She's an amazing kid. I'm really proud of her and everything she's accomplished."
Thursday, on the first day of the 5A tournament, Zhong beat Fruita Monument junior Sarah Fleming 6-2, 6-2 in the first round, and then battled with Fairview sophomore Sophie Pearson in a three-set match that lasted two hours. Zhong won 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 — and the third set was tied 5-5 before Zhong broke Pearson's serve to go up 6-5.
"There were a lot of ups and downs," Zhong said of the match. "There was just a lot of mental that I had to get past. It was definitely a physical battle, too. We had long points.
"She played amazing," Zhong added. "I've never played her before, so it was nice playing a new opponent, but she hit really well. Honestly, I was happy to play her. I got a good match in."
It marks the third-straight season Zhong has reached the semifinals. She has never advanced to the final.
"I just play every match like it's my last one, and I play my heart out," Zhong said. "I guess that's what got me to the semifinals to this year, too."
The senior added that previous trips to state have been helpful this season.
"I always get nervous when I come, just because it's such a big thing once you get here. You're like, 'Wow, I made it to state,'" Zhong said. "But there is a feeling of comfort knowing that I've been here before, what the atmosphere's like, what to expect."
Zhong will face Ky Ecton in the semifinals. Ecton, a junior from Poudre, was the 5A No. 1 Singles runner-up last season.
Ecton beat Denver East sophomore Emma Morrissey (6-0, 6-0) in the first round, and then Ponderosa freshman Hana Kimmey (6-0, 2-6, 6-4) in the quarterfinals.
Zhong said she's looking forward to "enjoying state one last time, and playing my heart out" on Friday.
- The No. 3 and No. 4 doubles matches couldn't finish play on Thursday, and will begin at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. Additionally, there is one No. 2 doubles match, between Poudre and Ponderosa, that will also play at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. Semifinals begin at 9 a.m.
- Cherry Creek leads the team race with 13, while Mountain Vista and Ponderosa are tied for second with 12 points. Denver East is fourth with 10.
- ThunderRidge freshman Veronika Bruetting and Smoky Hill junior Anshika Singh are in the other semifinal for the No. 1 Singles draw. Smoky Hill hasn't had an individual champion since 1987. ThunderRidge has never had an individual champion.
- Cherry Creek was the lone team to advance all seven positions out of the first round.