On a gloriously sunny afternoon at the University of Montana, Walter Briones put into perspective what it means to be a part of the Montana State A tennis meet.
What may not seem like a huge deal to some is a slice of heaven for the Libby senior. He's traveled roughly 4,000 miles to get here, you see, and as a foreign exchange student he's determined to savor every minute of this week's tournament.
"You know, it's one of my dreams really," said the big-serving righty from Ecuador, who reached the singles semifinals with a pair of wins Thursday. "I always wanted to come to the United States because this is the best country."
Briones stayed unbeaten with his straight-set victories in the first round and quarterfinals. On Friday he will tackle a tough 8 a.m. chore, battling unbeaten senior DJ Pekoc of Corvallis for a spot in an afternoon final.
"I feel very happy to play against him," Briones said. "He's a very good player and a very nice person. I had the opportunity to talk to him.
"I'm just so excited to play him because always, you know, when there's some people that are very good you want to play against them."
Win or lose, Friday will be bittersweet for Briones.
"Not just because I'm a senior, but because I am leaving Montana in a couple of days," he offered. "It makes me really sad. I consider this my home, too, really. The people make me feel like family. I'm just so thankful with God, really."
The boys' singles semifinals will feature three western Montanans. Joining Briones and Pekoc is Hamilton freshman Alex Raymond, who bounced divisional champion Zack Schermerhorn of Billings Central in the quarterfinals, 6-2, 6-3. Next up for the Bronc newcomer is defending state champion Jeff Miller of Havre, who survived a three-set quarterfinal with Mark Waldrup of Dillon, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
"I've played (Miller) before in USTA League tennis and it was a good match," Raymond noted. "I definitely like my serve right now. It's going in a lot. Tomorrow morning it will be cooler and the ball doesn't bounce as high. It's a different game really, definitely quicker. But I like it."
Thursday proved to be a disappointing day overall for western Montana boys. While Pekoc steamrolled into the singles semifinals, Corvallis' team title hopes were dealt a blow when Riley Jessop and Caleb Powell lost a first-round heartbreaker to Jory Opp and Dennis Berg of Glendive, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (9).
Stevensville's divisional champion doubles team of Colton Belcourt and Curtis Liston lost a three-set opener to Glendive's Jarod Asche and Bret Vester, 6-7 (0), 6-2, 6-1. Polson's divisional champion team of Colin Kenney and Quaid Harlan ran out of steam in the quarterfinals, dropping a 6-0, 6-0 decision to Opp and Berg.
Billings Central looks like a good bet to earn the boys' team championship. The Rams have a five-point lead over second-place Glendive with two doubles teams in the semifinals.
Corvallis senior Laramie McHugh, who hasn't dropped a high school match since her sophomore year, stormed into the singles semifinals with a pair of blowout wins at the Peak Racquet Club. The defending state champion expects a lot more resistance in her Friday morning semifinal against Livingston's Emilee Coleman.
"It should be really hard because she's really good," said McHugh, who will play for NCAA Division III St. Lawrence University in New York. "I guess she's a backboard and can place the ball really well. I'm glad it will be really cool out."
Like all the players in the State A meet, McHugh has to confront her nerves at state. Not even winning a singles championship last May is enough to make the butterflies go away.
"I think 75 percent of the shots missed are due because of nerves," she said. "It's really hard to keep your head in and when people are cheering and you want to look up at your parents and your coach and be like, 'Did I do good?' Or, 'I did bad.'
"You have to keep a steady head. But it's easier said than done."
In the other girls' semifinal Friday, unbeaten Emily Getts of Columbia Falls will face two-time state runner-up Barclay Fagg of Billings Central. Fagg outlasted Getts in the semifinals last season, 6-1, 6-4.
"It's really exciting to see her in the semis again but that's been her goal all season," Wildkats coach Gene Marcille said. "The way she plays, she's just a delight to coach.
"For a junior she's just a real steady kid. What I'm impressed with is when she hits a bad shot, it doesn't seem to faze her. She's got a tough challenge (Friday) but it should be a great match."
The two-time defending state champion Corvallis girls had some disappointment Thursday. Their divisional champion doubles team of Dakota Vaccaro and Miriam Montgomery lost in the quarterfinals to Glendive's Marenah Crockett and Ceeara Staiger.
Livingston looks like a good bet to come away with top team honors on the girls' side. The Rangers gold a five-point lead over second-place Billings Central with two doubles teams and a singles player in the semifinals.