For the first time in 12 years, Missoula has a player in the girls' State AA singles final.
Hellgate junior Sofia Panarella punched her ticket Thursday with three wins on the first day of Montana's large-school showcase tennis meet in Helena. On Friday she will try to become the Garden City's first Class AA girls' singles champion since Ristine Olson accomplished the feat for Sentinel in 2003.
"She had a really good day," Missoula Hellgate coach Brian Hanford said. "She came out ready to play and took care of business. She played a nice, aggressive, steady game of tennis and really worked on the game plan we've been working on."
Panarella won all six of her sets and dropped just eight games. She steamrolled over Hannah Haas of Helena Capital in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-0, to set up a showdown with Zoe Lindgren of Bozeman in the title match.
Panarella has lost to Lindgren twice this season. The last time was two weeks ago in the Helena Invitational, 5-7, 7-5, 10-6.
"She's really excited," Hanford said of Panarella. "The last time they started at 2-all in both sets so it wasn't real tennis as far as I'm concerned.
"Zoe is a great player and they both have similar styles. It should be a battle."
The Hellgate girls are in the running for a top-3 team finish. Sofia Panarella's freshman sister, Olivia, and Knights senior Mariah Skiftun each won a pair of singles matches and will face one another in a consolation match. Hellgate's doubles team of Holland Small and Maddie Keiper had a consolation win before bowing out.
Hellgate will also be represented in the boys' doubles final. Junior Isak Nord and freshman Grant Porter notched three hard-fought wins to set up a Friday duel with Billings West seniors Joe Sawatzke and Daniel Alme for top honors.
Highlighting the day for Nord and Porter was a quarterfinal win over the Billings Senior team of Skeff Thomas and Jack Wilgus, 7-5, 6-3.
"They had lost to them in the Helena Invite but today they played really solid tennis, getting their first serves in and making their volleys and returns," Hanford said.
"Isak (Nord) shows up every day with the same game. He puts a lot of balls in play and puts away volleys. His consistency and court coverage have gotten so much better. Having Isak as a partner is huge for Grant. He has more power than he knows what to do with but he's learned how to harness that power."
Kalispell Glacier senior Hunter Blalack will play for the boys' singles title after winning three matches. Friday will mark his first appearance in the championship match and he faces 2014 state runner-up Layne Ryerson of Helena High.
Blalack is 2-1 against Ryerson this season, beating him earlier this month at the Helena Invitational in a nail-biter, 2-6, 6-3, 10-8. Ryerson's only win over Blalack this season came in a match tiebreaker.
"He's a really good player, really fast, a good scrambler who gets to a lot of balls and keeps the ball in," Blalack said of Ryerson. "He's got a couple good weapons, too. We've played a good amount of times and I like my chances."
Highlighting Ryerson's day were wins over Helena Invitational champion Colin Bahin of Missoula Big Sky, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3), and defending state champion Noah Strizich of Helena Capital in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-1. Blalack beat Bozeman sophomore Marcos Zelver in the semifinals, 6-3, 6-4.
"I'm super happy and excited," said Blalack, who blocked out windy, rainy conditions in his semifinal match. "I like the confidence I have in all my shots. I know what I can hit and can't hit and when I see an opportunity I always take it."
Sentinel's two girls' doubles teams that were expected to challenge for top honors both fell in the semifinals Thursday. Megan Harrington and Katie Veteto lost to defending state champions Margot Shea and Sophie Allen of Bozeman. Sarah Ramsbacher and Kelsey Thomas lost to Helena Invitational champions Lindsey Martinez and Mackenzie George of Great Falls CMR.
Play was suspended late Thursday afternoon due to rain and lightning in Helena. Consolation action re-started at the Last Chance Tennis Center in the evening. On Friday morning a decision will be made whether to play indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather.