Groesbeck tennis jo1

(From left to right) Tyler Flatt, Caitlyn Harlan, Staci Nish and Hadley Heiner continue a longstanding tradition of Groesbeck players at the state tournament. This week will mark the 26th straight year the Goats have played at state.

Staff photo— Jason Orts

The year was 1989.

It was an iconic time in sports: The Bash Brothers of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco lifted the Oakland Athletics to a four-game sweep of the Bay Area World Series that was marred by a large earthquake, and the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Pistons claimed their first of back-to-back NFL and NBA titles, respectively.

In Central Texas high school sports, coach Jim Longbotham was building something special of his own, with Groesbeck starting a streak of sending at least one entry to the state tournament.

With the advancement of the girls’ doubles team of Staci Nish and Hadley Heiner, and the mixed doubles team of Caitlyn Harlan and Tyler Flatt, the Goats have reached the year’s final tournament for the 26th straight year.

“It means a lot because Coach Longbotham started what he did,” said Groesbeck coach Tyler Stewart, who took over after Longbotham retired in 2012. “I’m happy it didn’t end. Following somebody like that, you have a lot of pressure, so it’s been good to keep it going and it kind of validates me and gets a monkey off my back. Everybody was wondering how I was going to do, because he was really the only coach anyone had ever known. The kids have worked hard, and we’ve really tried to push it to them that it’s not going to come without hard work.”

Others around area

The Groesbeck teams are two of seven Central Texas entries that will compete at this year’s state tournament, beginning with the quarterfinals Monday.

Groesbeck’s entries, Robinson’s Jacob Wingate, Hubbard’s boys’ doubles pair of Casen Hubbard and Logan McClinton and girls’ doubles tandem of Kate Saucke and Nakaila Banks, and Kopperl’s mixed doubles team of Lindsey Williams and Dylan Hall will travel to Texas A&M’s Mitchell Tennis Center in College Station, while Midway’s mixed doubles pair of Caroline Kutach and Matt Tyer will head to the University of Texas’ Penick-Allison Tennis Center in Austin.

Stewart wasn’t certain the streak would continue last year, but Harlan and then-partner Andrew Cook found a way to get there.

Harlan didn’t play her best when she reached that stage, however, so she has a “bone to pick with state,” Stewart said.

“I think compared to last year — they keep telling me you can’t live in last year,” Harlan said. “It’s been a lot harder because with my partner last year it just kind of clicked and everything worked out. It’s been more about learning to work with a new partner this year, and it’s been a lot harder. But we’ve worked really hard, and I’ve just trusted in God that he was going to get us there, and it’s worked out.”

Flatt has been in and out of practice since the Class 3A Region III tournament, in which he and Harlan had to defeat teammates Jamie Madison and Fernando Luque in a playback to get second, because of an illness.

Still, he has reveled in continuing the Groesbeck tradition, especially after seeing so many of his teammates reach state before him.

“Now that it’s me it’s a different perspective,” Flatt said. “It used to be that you were congratulating other people, and now you’re the one being congratulated. It feels really good because now you’re the example. Other times you’re looking up at the people who have already gone to state. Now you’re that person, so you’re that example for this school.”

Nish and Hadley advanced through the regional tournament without dropping a set, although it was a tough two-setter against College Station’s Sandhiya Ravichandran and Lillian Ford in a 7-5, 6-4 victory in the final.

Both of them reached state for the first time, but they’re confident in their ability to advance.

“This week we’ve been working a lot on strategy,” Nish said. “We’ve got a little insight from some previous people we’ve played on our opponents this week. We’ve just got to step up our game, and hopefully that will carry us through. Our coaches have been preparing us as best we can, so that’s all we can hope for.”

Nish and Hadley complement each other in that Nish prefers the net game, while Hadley is a solid player from the baseline.

“It means a lot to me that I believe in myself and I can actually get somewhere and do something incredible,” Hadley said. “God has given me this opportunity to work hard. It’s really great because we have great coaches who help us.”

Stewart, who was an assistant to Longbotham for two years before taking over the program, said he still hears from the former coach often.

But Longbotham doesn’t try to intrude upon Stewart’s coaching the team.

“He’s still very visible out here,” Stewart said. “Everybody in the tennis community respects him a great deal, so it was great to learn from him. He taught me a lot of stuff about how to conduct yourself and conduct your team. Even if we don’t keep the streak going, I want to be a team that everyone knows because we act the right way and we’re working as hard as possible.”

History at Midway

While Groesbeck kept its streak alive, Kutach and Tyer made history as Midway’s first-ever team to reach state in 5A.

“I wanted to be the first ones that went as a 5A because I didn’t get the opportunity at 4A,” Kutach said. “It’s a big deal because I’ve been working really hard, and this has been my goal the entire season. I wanted to do it before next year when Matt’s gone and I would have to do it by myself.”

For Tyer, it’s his third trip to the state tournament. He went his freshman and sophomore seasons in boys’ doubles, but will make his maiden voyage in mixed.

He said the quality of boys’ players in the draw will make it difficult to navigate.

“I have a bunch of friends playing at state, and all of them are in mixed now,” Tyer said. “Mixed doubles possibly has the best guys in it, and that includes singles and doubles. Mixed doubles is the hardest draw this time around, which is really unexpected.”


State qualifiers


Class 5A: Caroline Kutash and Matt Tyer, Midway (mixed doubles)

Class 3A: Jacob Wingate, Robinson (boys’ singles); Caitlyn Harlan and Tyler Flatt, Groesbeck (mixed doubles); Staci Nish and Hadley Heiner, Groesbeck (girls’ doubles)

Class 1A: Casen Martin and Logan McClinton, Hubbard (boys’ doubles); Kate Saucke and Nakaila Banks, Hubbard (girls’ doubles); Lindsey Williams and Dylan Hall, Kopperl (mixed doubles)

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