No matter what happens during the regular season, athletes in many sports have the opportunity to make something good happen during league tournaments or postseason playoffs.

Just ask Houston High School sophomore Connor McKinney.

After losing four times to 6-5 senior Kyle Penner of Mountain Grove during the 2023 season, McKinney beat Penner 8-6 in the final match of singles competition in the South Central Association conference championship tournament Wednesday at Willow Springs.

Penner started fast and built a 2-game lead early, but McKinney battled back and pulled even at 5-5 and then turned the tables on Penner by breaking serve to take a 6-5 lead. 

McKinney then held serve to go ahead 7-5 and ended up serving out match out at 7-6 to win 8-6. 

HHS tennis head coach Josh McKinney is Connor’s father, and they devised a game plan that worked.

“I was very proud that he stuck to a game plan that was not his normal style of play and kept that same mentality throughout all of his matches during the day,” coach McKinney said. “He showed some real toughness and mental strength.” 

“It feels really good,” said Connor McKinney. “I’ve worked so hard to get to the point where I can play different, using my head instead of just brute force. I couldn’t have realized this without my coach who taught me to try new things and never give up. He’s an amazing coach and father. 

“But I’m not done yet. I plan on doing big things in the district tournament and in my future as a player.”

The McKinney’s plan involved hitting more shots, and wearing down Penner.

Connor McKinney holds his SCA championship gold medal while standing with his father and HHS tennis head coach Josh McKinney.

“We had to make some changes after 4 straight losses this year,” coach McKinney said. “Connor over the first two years has been known as kid who hits the ball extremely hard with a lot of spin and tries to impose that upon his opponents and expect it to be enough. We came up with a plan that took away his power and focused on hitting medium paced balls with consistency and force the other player to tire out and start making mistakes.

“Connor can be a very consistent player, but has not been used to playing that way. I felt he could be more consistent than Kyle and beat him by not taking the risks that big hitters take, like not going for the corners and the short angles at a high rate of pace. We focused on hitting consistent until we got a ball Connor believed he could set his feet and punish and follow to the net to finish the point with volley and overheads if it came back. He executed the game plan all day even against the weaker players in the draw. 

I know that the losses to Kyle this year and seeing how much he has grown as a player made Connor work harder, think differently about his own game, and make the changes I knew he was going to have to make to beat players playing at the level Kyle has all season. It truly was a great match.”

Getting the win meant a lot on several levels to Connor McKinney, as he is very familiar with Penner and his family, and the two players worked together on the courts last summer.

“It’s really a great achievement,” Connor said. “I’ve always kind of looked up to him in a way, as he is the most respectful kid I’ve met out there. He never loses his cool even when things aren’t going his way. It was a tough match, as he has a lot of fight in him and in order to come back when he had the lead, I had to change my game and get back to the plan. It was not the way I would normally play. I feel honored to get play with and pull a win against a player as strong willed as Kyle. I love his parents and his aunt who is his coach as they have always been generous to me whether it be hugs after my losses and big congratulations after my wins. 

“They are a great family who I have been blessed to meet that supports not only Kyle, but myself.” 

After a huge service break to take a lead late in the final match, Connor McKinney was able to serve for the victory.

Houston junior Kolten Gayer also played singles in the tournament and made it to the quarterfinals before falling to Penner. 

“Kolten played a great match, and I was very proud of his effort and attitude today,” coach McKinney said. “I enjoy having such a coach-friendly player willing to do what is best for the team and willing to listen and work hard in practice.” 

HHS freshmen Maggie Wolfe and Halie Hamilton played in the doubles bracket and fell in the first round to a tough duo from Mountain Grove. 

“They really tried to work together, talk and make adjustments as a team,” coach McKinney said. 

The SCA tournament is played in a single-elimination format.

“The conference tournament is tough,” coach McKinney said. “But I feel like our team is getting better and they really enjoy being around each other. I really am blessed to get to know and coach every single one of these kids.”

The Tennis Tigers are very busy as the season winds down. They played a home match on Tuesday of last week against Willow Springs, traveled to Salem last Friday, and this week hosted Rolla on Monday and traveled to Licking on Tuesday.

After a final tune-up Thursday (May 4) at Willow Springs, Houston athletes will compete in the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 1 District 8 tournaments at Salem, with the individual event set for this Saturday (May 6) and the team event scheduled for Monday (May 8).

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