Ethan Neil’s toughest day on the court this season came five weeks ago, when Mason Warner of Lincoln Pius X beat the Papillion-La Vista junior 8-3 during the Capital City Invitational.
In hindsight, Neil thinks that was the best thing to happen to him.
“At the beginning of the season, I felt pressure just because I was defending state champ,” said Neil, who won last year’s title as the No. 3 seed. “Then I got beat earlier in the year, and ever since then, I haven’t felt pressure.”
Neil looked focused at last week’s Metro Conference tournament, when he lost three games in eight sets. He enters as the No. 1 seed in this year’s Class A state meet.
Neil has won his past 17 matches and brings a 29-1 record into state, which begins Thursday at Koch Tennis Center.
If Neil is to repeat this week, he’ll have to do it against a deep and talented field. Warner is the No. 2 seed, followed by Lincoln Southwest’s Joe Harris, Millard North’s Garret Starman and Elkhorn’s Zach Kuo.
Last year, Warner and Kuo played in the Class B final, while Starman was a state champion at No. 1 doubles when Millard North won A’s team title.
Kuo’s only loss this year came against Harris. Harris and Warner split a pair of matches, with Warner winning the more recent one two weeks ago.
Harris is 28-3 after finishing 20-11 as a junior.
“His tennis game has really jumped up a level this year,” Southwest coach Denny Hershberger said. “He’s a much smoother player on the court, more consistent than last year.”
Southwest and Pius head the list of favorites to win the team title. Pius won in Class B last year and returns five of its six starters, and all four of its entries are seeded in the top four.
Southwest has the top seed at No. 1 doubles in undefeated Nick O’Shea and Grady Works and the second seed at No. 2 doubles.
Omaha Creighton Prep, which edged Elkhorn South and Millard North for the Metro title, looks to be in the mix, as well.
“It comes down to how they play,” Junior Jays coach Jerry Kowal said of his team. “I think Southwest is in the driver’s seat with Joe Harris and their No. 1 doubles, and Pius is really good.”