In the world of high school girls' tennis, the annual matchup between St. Joseph and Rowland Hall has turned into quite a rivalry. Both play in the 1A/2A classification, are located in northern Utah, are private schools and have battled for region and state titles year in and year out.
"I think it's a classic rivalry, and it is an exciting rivalry," said St. Joseph head coach Gary Griffenhagen.
Five years ago, when Griffenhagen took over the Jayhawk program, the St. Joseph players were intimidated by the historically powerful Winged Lion.
"When I first got here, the first time we played Rowland Hall, it was like the girls were scared," the coach said. "I didn't get it. I had been coaching against bigger schools and I told the team, 'this is nothing.' "
Prior to moving to the private school, Griffenhagen had coached at West High during the early 2000s, where he led the team to a 4A state championship.
"We have gotten over that intimidation factor and have a lot of confidence in what we do," Griffenhagen said. "The last few years, playing Rowland Hall and beating them head on, that helped us out (mentally) a lot. Playing against a strong team like them brings out the best in us; it makes everybody rise up."
Griffenhagen added that two seasons ago, the Jayhawks were in good position to defeat the Winged Lion in the state tournament but lost two key matches and the opportunity disappeared. St. Joseph fell to third place in 2010, losing to Waterford by one point.
"In 2010, we had a chance and it crumbled at the end. Last year, we had the same team back and we got to state and said, 'Let's not do that again.' "
They didn't. The team used the painful lesson to win the 2011 state title, defeating Rowland Hall by just one point.
This season, the defending champions return a young team with the singles fields being filled with freshmen — Ruby Marten in first singles, Rebekka Armstrong in second singles, and Margi Maher in third singles. Kelsey Almony is moving to first doubles and teaming up with Katie Panushka, while Ali Koehler moves up from JV to join Audra Thurston in second doubles.
The experience this year will be on the courts at Rowland Hall, which returns all three singles players, who are now all seniors and entering their fourth year of varsity play. Those girls are defending champion Madeline Foley in first singles, second singles runner-up Kaitlin Ramsey, and third singles defending champion Scout Swenson.
In 3A, Judge Memorial is the reigning champion and led by Whitney Weisberg, a sophomore who earned the second singles title a year ago as a newcomer, and Katie Iwasaki, a junior who earned the third singles title in 2011.
Another returner who won the title as a freshman is Lacey Hancock, a sophomore out of Pine View. Hancock rolled through first singles play a year ago, losing just four games in tournament play.
In the state's largest division, Lone Peak – which split the 5A title with Alta last season – has rearranged its roster to cater to the strengths of this season's team.
"I think this year we're strong in singles, and about the same strength in doubles," said Lone Peak head coach John LaCognata. "We have a couple of freshmen out there who are already playing like seniors."
Sophomore Taylor Calton returns to the first singles spot, and freshmen Leah Heimuli and Morgan Hall step into second and third singles, respectively. Megan Call is teaming up with Electra Cochran in first doubles while Haley Schettler and Lexi Sheffield currently fill the second doubles spot.
"It looks like 5A will again be a difficult road," LaCognata said, adding that Alta is always tough, Davis is loaded with talent, including Alexis and Brianna Turley, and Cottonwood returns strong players, including first singles runner-up Katie Sweet.
"There's a lot of depth, hopefully that is led by us and Davis. The Darts have a couple of strong players that will really help them out of the chute."
Leading the 4A class will be the always dominant Skyline Eagles, who return two of last season's champions. Seniors Erin Blessing and Syd Monson earned the second and third singles titles a year ago, respectively. Senior Erica Valimaki of Orem was the first singles winner in 2011.