Successful partnership

Playing together for first time this season, Grand Junction's No. 1 doubles team finishes second at Western Slope Open

Grand Junction’s Jessi Smith, right, returns a shot Saturday as her No. 1 doubles partner, Payton Staats, left, looks on during the semifinals of the Western Slope Open at the Elliott Tennis Center. Despite playing together as a team for only three days, the Tigers’ duo finished second.

Jessi Smith and Payton Staats have always played doubles on the Grand Junction High School girls tennis team, but they’ve never been paired together.

Never, however, ended this week, and the two seniors are liking what they’re seeing.

Playing No. 1 doubles, Smith and Staats were the only School District 51 players to reach the finals Saturday at the Western Slope Open. Despite falling short of the championship, they were thrilled with how quickly they jelled in a short time.

They won their first match together in a dual Thursday against Columbine, then fashioned a 3-1 record in the two-day tournament.

“We did awesome,” Staats said, “because this is the first time we ever played together ... and we’ve been practicing about a week.”

Staats said their friendship on and off the court has helped them develop a comfort level quickly, and they communicate the way doubles players need to in order to be successful.

Or, as Staats put it, “When we talk, we’re amazing.”

Smith said the Front Range competition at the Western Slope Open can lead to a tough transition for a new team so early in the season, but she and Staats learned something else about themselves.

“We didn’t get stressed out,” Smith said.

More than that, they liked the challenge, even after their 6-2, 6-0 loss to Mountain Vista in the final.

“Those are the best matches, when you play someone who is better than you, because you always learn so much from playing them,” Smith said.

Staats said Mountain Vista’s tandem of Ashlen Grote and Alex Begler was phenomenal, adding they hit harder than some of the Grand Junction boys tennis players.

“We tried our best the entire time,” she said. “We kept going, each point, each game.”

The loss provided lessons that will make them better as they go along. For that matter, they said they noticed improvement in each of their four matches in the tourney.

“We were able to get a feel for how each other plays,” Staats said.

She added the two got better at getting to the net each match, and Smith said they definitely got better at knowing what to expect from each other and played more aggressively as they went.

Grand Junction coach Carol Elliott pointed out many of the same things Smith and Staats mentioned, chief among them being the communication and how they’re working together well and strategizing, learning opponents’ weaknesses and exploiting them.

“I think they’re going to be a great combination,” Elliott said. “Just the fact they’re able to do some of the things they’re doing so early in the season is a nice surprise.

“They have to work on continuing to being very aggressive. They’ve come a long way in the last two weeks.”

Elliott said their newness as a team leads to little ups and downs, and she likes how they’ve handled the downs.

“They get out of it quick,” Elliott said. “They’re doing a good job of maintaining their emotions.”

The next best finish by a local player was third place from the Tigers at No. 1 singles. Senior Carolena Campos bounced back from a 6-2, 6-1 semifinal loss to eventual champion Casey Zhong of Mountain Vista, and she persevered in a tight match to beat Denver East’s Jenesse Johnson on a tiebreaker in a six-point pro set, 7-6 (7-2).

Zhong beat Poudre’s Ky Ecton 6-2, 6-2 for the title. Ecton, meanwhile, was responsible for putting a serious crimp in Fruita Monument’s team point total. The first-round matches, which are worth 15 points, were determined by random draw, and that produced a matchup of returning state qualifiers at No. 1 singles: Ecton and the Wildcats’ Sarah Fleming. Ecton prevailed 6-2, 6-3.

Fruita finished 10th in the 16-team field with 79 points, one spot behind Grand Junction with 95 points. Mountain Vista put players in five of the seven finals and won the team championship with 197 points, 32 more than runner-up Poudre.

Central finished 15th with 25 points, but Warriors coach Mickey Mantlo measured his players’ success by improvement, not wins, and he saw enough of the former to be pleased.

When it came to wins, though, Central had two players who netted some in the consolation brackets.

Mantlo said Olivia Aslan at No. 3 singles finished 2-2, and, “I was very pleased with her.”

He added, “Probably our brightest spot was our No. 4 doubles. They’re new to (high school) tennis. Alivia Weiszbrod is a freshman, and Akaycia Berger is a junior playing (tennis) for the first time. They were 3-3, and they beat Fruita and Junction in tiebreakers.”


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