To say that Jasper Koenen is leaving his mark on the St. Charles East boys tennis program is probably the biggest understatement of the spring sports season.
Friday marked yet another milestone in Koenen's four-year varsity career. The St. Charles East Sectional's No. 1 singles seed won two matches to earn his fourth trip to the state meet and move him within two victories of his fourth sectional championship.
The senior knocked off Lake Park's Josh Solarz and Geneva's Curran McQuilkin by 6-0, 6-0 scores to reach the sectional semifinals, where he'll face Wheaton Academy's Chris Jones at 9 a.m. Saturday. The winner of that match takes on either Lake Park's Piotr Lada or Geneva's Nick Huang in the sectional singles final later that day.
On the doubles side, St. Charles North's Aaron Amburgey and Grant Spellman will play St. Charles East's George Spoerl and Alex Winters in one semifinal on Saturday while Geneva's Ryan Doeckel and John Potts meet Lake Park's Jack Millikan and Luke Szulczynski in the other semifinal. The top four finishers in singles and doubles have already punched tickets to the state meet May 29 to 31 in and around Arlington Heights.
Besides earning him four sectional singles crowns in as many years, two more victories by Koenen would give the Saints a solid shot at the sectional team title. East and Geneva are currently tied for second place with 16 points apiece behind St. Charles North, which has 18 points. The Saints and Vikings may hold a slight edge over the North Stars since both schools have one singles and one doubles entry still alive in the sectional, while North's lone state qualifier is Amburgey and Spellman. With Koenen the prohibitive favorite to claim the singles championship, East may have the inside track at the sectional team crown.
Koenen's goal at the sectional is to "take care of business so I can conserve energy for state next week," the Michigan State University-bound standout said. "I have a different mindset this year than last year. I had a loss going into state last year and was a 9-16 seed at state. I wanted to just prove people wrong about my seeding. This year I want to win state."
Koenen capped a 33-3 junior campaign by placing fourth at the 2013 state tournament, losing to eventual state champion Martin Joyce of Hinsdale Central 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals before dropping the third-place match in three sets. Joyce, a junior who has committed to play tennis at Ohio State University, and Koenen could be on a collision course for a rematch next weekend. Koenen, who has gone 24-0 this season to improve his career record at East to 106-12, thinks he'll fare better at state next week for one significant reason.
"Last year as a junior I was on a mission to play well in front of college coaches recruiting me," he said. "This year I'm more relaxed. There's no pressure on me to impress the colleges. I just want to win state for my team and my school. I love this school so much. I want to bring home the state title for my school."
By contrast, Koenen's semifinal opponent on Saturday is simply excited to have qualified for state for the first time. Jones, a junior, is 17-12 in his first full season at first singles. Jones started his road to state with a 6-0, 6-2 victory over Jordan Li of Bartlett, then outlasted North's Matt Ernst 6-3, 6-3 to reach the semifinals. Ernst didn't go down without a fight, landing three break points in a 20-minute-long final game of the match before Jones scored the match's last two points after the duo's eighth deuce of the climactic game.
Jones knows he faces the toughest challenge of his young tennis career in the powerful 6-foot-5 Koenen.
"Jasper Koenen is probably the favorite to win state," Jones said. "It'll be fun to play against him. My goal will be to just make him move around the court and try to get him off his game. I know it won't be easy, but I have nothing to lose from this point on."
In the other singles semifinals, another first-time state qualifier, Lada, will square off with Huang, who will be making his second appearance at state after playing there in doubles in 2013. Huang overcame a back injury suffered during the St. Charles East Invitational April 26 that nearly forced the Geneva senior to miss out on the sectional. But plenty of rest, ice and chiropractic treatment brought just enough healing to allow Huang to return to East's courts on Friday, where he dispatched Fenton's Valentino Flores 6-2, 6-1 and North's Matt Kramer 6-1, 6-1.
"It's still tight," Huang said. "It's just something I'll have to deal with. Today it felt decent, better than when I played at the conference tournament (last weekend). I was definitely happy with my service placement today and my ability to stay consistent throughout the match. I'm thrilled to be able to return to state after what I've gone through the last few weeks."
Lada can identify with Huang. The Lake Park sophomore overcame a trio of recent injuries, including a strained deltoid in his right shoulder, to beat West Chicago's Juan Garcia 6-0, 6-0 and East's Matt McCarthy 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 on Friday. Lada struggled in the first set of his quarterfinal duel with McCarthy before regaining his form in the final two sets, at one point winning seven consecutive games.
"I was thinking about my strokes too much in the first set," said Lada, who battled nerves early in the match. "The last two sets I just stayed calm, trusted my skills and kept the ball in the court."
Lancers coach Tim Martin credited Lada's ticket to state to a tireless work ethic. "Piotr is one of the hardest-working players I've had at Lake Park," Martin said. "He put in the most hours of anyone on the team in the off-season."
Lada will have familiar company at state. Lake Park teammates Millikan and Szulczynski improved their season record to 27-5 with 6-1, 6-2 and 6-0, 6-3 victories in doubles action that took place at North.
"Jack now has 115 wins for his four years at Lake Park. He and Luke were fantastic today," Martin said. "This will be Jack's third year in a row at state. His doubles team won three matches two years ago and two matches last year. He and Luke are a first-year team. They've been great all year. Their goal is to make it to Friday, then everything else depends on the draw they get. We're thrilled to get a singles entry and a doubles team through to state. It's a testament to the work ethic of these players to get through a tough sectional like this. It's a great accomplishment."
Amburgey and Spellman lost just one game in two matches to clinch a spot in the state tournament for the North Stars. Doeckel and Potts edged North's Mitch Riggs and Keith Hedges 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4) in a marathon quarterfinal match to snag a berth at state, and Spoerl and Winters rallied past Wheaton Academy's Reid Bertsche and Alex Renn 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 for a state ticket and a pairing with Amburgey and Spellman in Saturday morning's semifinals. Doeckel and Potts will face Lake Park in the other semifinal.