The tennis team from Paonia High School saved its best for last.
The squad, comprised of athletes from Hotchkiss and Paonia, posted a fifth-place team finish at regionals last weekend in Grand Junction and saw Paonia senior Jessie Holt qualify for a third straight state tournament.
"We really had a great finish to our season and I feel all of my girls played their best tennis at regionals," coach Brian Benson said.
Paonia finished fifth out of 10 teams. Steamboat Springs was first, followed by Montrose, Durango and Aspen.
The remainder of the field included Delta, Vail Mountain, Cedaredge, Cortez and Glenwood Springs, not necessarily in that order.
Holt capped a magnificent regular season and went 3-1 at regionals. In No. 1 Singles play, she won against Vail Mountain (6-2, 6-0) and Glenwood Springs (6-0, 6-0).
She lost in the championship match against Aspen freshman Mary Williams (5-7, 2-6), then Holt beat Montrose (6-4, 6-4) to qualify for the state tournament beginning May 12 in Pueblo.
"Of special note for Jessie would be the fact that this is her third consecutive year to qualify for the state tournament. She was at No. 3 Singles as a sophomore, No. 2 Singles last year, and now at No. 1 Singles," Benson said. "I don't believe Hotchkiss or Paonia has ever had a player attend state three times, and I know for a fact that no one has ever done that multiple times at Singles."
Paonia just missed qualifying two more players at state, No. 4 Doubles Ashley Ziemer and Sierra Griffith.
"They had just an unbelievable tourney, starting with the fact that they were the No. 1 seed, and I don't know if we have ever achieved that before," Benson said.
After a first-round bye, they defeated Montrose in the quarterfinals 6-1, 6-1, then were beaten in the semifinals by Durango (the eventual champions) 2-6, 3-6.
In their third match of the day on Thursday, Ziemer and Griffith managed to survive a playback match versus Delta 6-2, 6-3.
On Friday morning, they played Aspen for third place and won 6-3, 6-2. They then had the opportunity to challenge Steamboat (the second-place team) for the right to go to state.
"They eventually lost that match 3-6, 4-6, but not before putting up a very good fight," Benson said.
In other Paonia matches, McKenna Erickson lost to Aspen in the No. 2 Singles quarterfinals while Kelsey Stroud fell in the pigtail round at No. 3 Singles.
"I thought McKenna played the best tennis I have seen from her all year. She was just fantastic against Aspen," Benson said. "This was the third time this year Kelsey tangled with Vail Mountain and every time it went the full three sets. Kelsey won the first two times, and though I thought she played great, I think the law of averages just caught up to her."
Because of AP tests, Paonia did not field a team at No. 1 Doubles. At No. 2 Doubles, Haley Park and Emily Wilczek lost in the quarterfinals and then lost to Durango in the playback round.
"I thought Haley and Emily played terrific, they were just a little overmatched by Steamboat and then Durango just managed to win the crucial points," Benson said.
Bailee Campbell and Macy O'Rourke competed at No. 3 Doubles for Paonia. They won a three-set marathon versus Vail Mountain in the pigtail round 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, and then lost another three setter versus Montrose 4-6, 6-4, 3-6.
"The Vail matchup featured some of the best sportsmanship on both sides that I have ever witnessed. Really cool!" Benson said.