Pitted against a foe determined to blow him off the court with big shots, DJ Pekoc simply disarmed his attacker with superior athleticism.
The Corvallis senior called on his rare quickness and hit some winners of his own in sweeping Havre's Jeff Miller in the State A boys' singles final, 6-2, 6-3, Friday at the University of Montana. In doing so Pekoc avenged a loss to Miller in last year's state championship, a match that saw Pekoc withdraw with a third-set lead because of cramps.
"It was really fun to win it, but I think I was more excited about not cramping up," joked Pekoc, who finished the season undefeated. "I was excited to get through this without having any injury. That was awesome. But it feels great to win, too."
The career-capping victory was made extra special by the fan support Pekoc enjoyed in Missoula.
"This year I've met so many new, different people from places like Libby and Whitefish," he said. "People I've never talked to before and just after like hanging out here and divisionals, they all came and supported my in that last match. That was just really cool."
Pekoc seemed almost at ease standing his ground while Miller attempted monster forehands that sailed out. Not only did he track down a lot of his opponent's attempted winners, he answered with his own brand of aggression.
"I've played players like that before," Pekoc offered. "There's a couple in my division similar to that where they just try and pull the winners. But it's just one more ball every time. You just have to hit one more ball, keep it deep, don't let them get on their front foot."
It helps when you're as fit as Pekoc. He dedicated himself to being physically prepared for state almost from the time he walked off the court after the 2014 season. His hard work paid off after he outlasted undefeated Libby senior Walter Briones in the semifinal round, 6-3, 6-4, en route to the chipper.
"It was a very good battle for my semifinal," Pekoc said. "I used a lot of energy in that and it was very difficult. Walter is just a great player.
"What I was thinking in the final this time is I'm feeling so much better than I was last time. I'm not tired. My legs aren't feeling sore. I'm there this time. I've got it."
Corvallis senior Laramie McHugh also appeared headed for a state title in the girls' singles final when Billings Central's Barclay Fagg pulled off the improbable. Fagg, who had twice lost in prior state finals, including last year against McHugh, rallied from a 2-5 deficit in the third set to win, 2-6, 6-3, 7-5.
It was almost as if someone flipped a switch as Fagg lost very few points in her final five-game surge.
"I thought I have to step up my game and play my game and focus on my strokes, try to be more consistent," she said. "I feel like I played a lot better than I did last year in the final against her. It wasn't as hot today, which was good. My game came together."
Fagg lost just one match all season, that coming against State AA singles champion Zoe Lindgren of Bozeman. McHugh went into the match unbeaten after sweeping Livingston's Emilee Coleman in a Friday morning semifinal, 6-4, 6-0.
"Honestly both gals just battled their hearts out," Corvallis coach Mike Fehr said. "Barclay has placed second for so long. This is just something she was just fighting and you could see it in the third set.
"I think it's a credit to Montana high school Class A tennis to see a match like this. I'm proud of Laramie. She is a fantastic player and it was a privilege to coach her."
Billings Central coach Jerry Peach was just as impressed as Fehr.
"You see that and you really hate to see anybody lose," he said. "It was that good of tennis. Two girls that are out there just fighting and the effort and attitude was good, the strokes were good. It was excellent."
John Knisely and Harrison Fagg of Billings Central claimed the boys' doubles title with a win over teammates Thomas Pankratz and Jacob Newbury, 6-1, 1-6, 6-0. In girls' doubles, Mariel Kelley and Chelsea Woods of Livingston mined gold with a 6-2, 6-0 win over Marenah Crockett and Ceeara Staiger of Glendive.
Billings Central took the boys' team title with 34 points and Corvallis placed second with 19. On the girls' side, Livingston took top honors with 35 points and Billings Central was a close second with 30.
"Our boys' team, what can you say?" commented Peach, who was head men's coach at Montana State in the 1980s. "I mean, what a team. I'm just a first-year coach and I inherited some very good players."