After winning the South Central Association conference championship in singles, Houston High School sophomore Connor McKinney followed up by taking second at the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 1 District 8 tournament last Saturday at Salem, and qualifying for the Class 1 state tournament in the process.
Seeded second in the event, McKinney won his first round match 6-0, 6-0 in the best-of-3 sets format, and then triumphed 7-5, 6-2 in the semifinals.
Then came the epic final match, with McKinney facing Osage junior Damon Lemke. Last year, Lemke beat McKinney in the district semifinals, 6-2, 6-0. But this time, McKinney and Lemke locked horns in a titanic back-and-forth battle, with Lemke winning 6-7, 7-6, 10-7.
After taking the first set in a tie-breaker, McKinney got out to an early lead in the second set, but Lemke battled back and won in another tie-break. The third set came down to a super tie-break, which Lemke won 10-7. The match lasted almost 3 hours and was full of high-level tennis.
“I felt as Connor’s coach that he had many chances to take charge of the second set, but missed those opportunities,” said HHS head coach Josh McKinney (Connor’s dad). “The third set really came down to who wanted it more and had the most left physically. I was proud of Connor’s effort. He played his heart out and really wanted to win, but his goal was to advance and he accomplished it.
“I’m proud of the hard work he has put in this year. He deserves it, and that was a big goal for him this year. I’m happy he achieved what he set out to do.
McKinney’s reward for advancing to this week’s state tournament sectionals round is a matchup with a player from the St. Louis area who has lost only one match this year and was a state runner-up last year.
“He has a national ranking and plays at the highest level of tennis you can as a high school player,” coach McKinney said. “It would be ridiculous of me as a coach to think Connor can advance, but hey, it’s tennis and things do happen out there on the court.
“As a coach, I think that it’s a great opportunity to go into a match where everyone believes that you will lose and take a shot at seeing how you stack up against arguably maybe the best player in the state. Connor really has nothing to lose.”
Houston junior Kolten Gayer also played at districts. Seeded fourth, Gayer fell 6-3, 6-0 in the first round.
“Kolten has played really well the last couple of weeks, and I felt he would make the semifinals.” coach McKinney said, “But that’s how it goes sometimes as a tennis player; he battled and just didn’t play to the best of his capability.”
On Monday of this week, the Tennis Tigers returned to Salem for the team portion of the district tournament. Seeded third in the 4-team field, Houston was swept by No. 2 Salem.