TENNIS: Claremore shows promise under new leadership

Mar. 19—As the Claremore tennis team progresses through its season, a new era under coach Matt Wallen is underway.

Following the retirement of legendary coach Michael Larimer, who served as the Zebras' coach for 23 years and was recently inducted into the Oklahoma Tennis Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Wallen brings a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the team.

Reflecting on Larimer's legacy, Wallen expressed admiration for his mentor's impact on the program and the lives of countless individuals. As Wallen continues to grow in his new role, Larimer remains a teacher at the high school, providing the former with a perfect outlet for advice and inspiration.

"He's still in the building, and he's a great mentor to have and a guy to talk to," said Wallen, who was previously Larimer's assistant. "He's always around, and any time I have a question, I can call him up and he always has an answer. He's a guy that's done it forever — a hall of famer — and I had the privilege a couple of weekends ago to go down to Oklahoma City when he got inducted. The amount of people that showed up to support him, it really shows the type of impact that he has had on a lot of people's lives and not just me as an individual. We had a retirement party for him — thrown by some former players and their parents — back in December, and the amount of people that showed up and showed how much he meant to them and the impact that he had on their lives, it was just unbelievable.

"He's just a great man."

Despite the transition, the Claremore tennis program is thriving with a talented group of players showing promise on the court. The team, though young in terms of playing experience, has demonstrated potential in the early stages of the season.

Leading the charge in boys No. 1 singles is Kaden Salcido, who has consistently performed well, securing fourth-place finishes in two out of three tournaments. Mackinley Sisovsky has also made a name for himself in No. 2 singles, boasting a commendable 7-1 record and clinching first place at the Pauls Valley Tournament last week.

Drew Mason and Tyger Holland are proving to be a formidable duo in No. 1 doubles, showing improvement with each match. Likewise, Will Jones and Ben Forbes have exceeded expectations despite limited preparation time, churning out impressive performances in No. 2 doubles.

Mason and Holland are 5-4 on the season and own fourth- and fifth-place finishes. They would've played for first place in Claremore's Big Z Shootout on March 8 if not for an untimely rainout.

The No. 2 doubles team formed late because of Jones' recent arrival from basketball, but he and Forbes forged a quick chemistry that allowed them to not only secure a victory in the Big Z Shootout before getting rained out, but also advance to the championship round of the Pauls Valley Tournament before ultimately finishing second.

"The boys finished runner-up at the Pauls Valley Tournament," Wallen said. "I'm proud of all of them, and they all won their first match and had an opportunity to medal, so they're doing great and we're moving in the right direction. Only two of our boys had any varsity time at all last year, so we're young from a playing time standpoint."

On the girls side, Ella Ramsey and Stacy Denysenko have emerged as key players in singles action.

Ramsey, who recently returned to the lineup after missing the first tournament and first dual, has quickly made an impact with her strong performances in No. 1 singles, finishing third in a loaded Pauls Valley Tournament field while garnering an overall record of 4-1.

Denysenko, hailing from Ukraine, has brought a wealth of talent and determination to the team. Despite facing challenges, Denysenko has shown tenacity on the court, earning praise for her competitive spirit and unwavering resolve.

"She came over to America when Russia invaded, and she's an awesome individual to have on the team," Wallen said. "She stepped into No. 2 singles starting that second to last tournament, and she's 3-2 on the year ... She never feels like she's out of it."

Kizer Ballard and Claire Hardage, as well as Taylor Phillips and Ella Ralsten, are forming dynamic partnerships on the doubles court for the Lady Zebras.

Ballard and Hardage, close friends off the court, have developed a strong chemistry and understanding of each other's playing styles. Their cohesive teamwork and strategic approach have made them a formidable duo in No. 1 doubles, capable of challenging any opponent.

"At different times last year they were in the lineup for varsity, but they weren't in it the whole time," Wallen said. "Now they're playing No. 1 doubles together, and that takes a lot of guts. They find a way each week to figure it out."

Meanwhile, Phillips and Ralsten are showing promise and potential in No. 2 doubles.

With their dedication to improvement and willingness to learn, they are quickly establishing themselves as valuable assets to the team and contributing to its overall success. In a competitive field at the Pauls Valley Tournament last week, Phillips and Ralsten placed seventh.

As the season progresses, Wallen is optimistic about the team's trajectory and is confident that it will continue to excel. With a blend of experienced returners and promising newcomers, the Zebras are poised for success as they navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

"I really like the path the team's going on right now, and I think once we get to the end of the year and once regionals start, we're gonna have everything rolling full steam ahead," Wallen said.