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GIRLS' PREP TENNIS: Could this be the year for Central Hardin in the region tournament? (5/2)

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By Ryan O'Gara

Dethroning the Elizabethtown Lady Panthers has been easier said than done in the last 11 years.

Thanks to two top-notch singles players, the Central Hardin Lady Bruins have as good of a chance as anyone in recent memory.

As the Lady Panthers vie for their 12th straight Girls’ 5th Region Tennis Tournament title starting today at Freeman Lake Park, senior Emily Novak and junior Riley Keys are two big reasons the Lady Bruins are serious contenders for their first team title in school history.

“Our chances this year are a lot better than they have been recently,” Novak said. “With me and Riley playing so well… Other people on our team are playing pretty well too, they just need to piece a few last things together.”

Keys echoed Novak’s sentiment that the Lady Bruins are equipped to make a serious run at the team title.

“We just have to stay positive,” she said, “and try not to get too frustrated and stuff – just go there and play and not worry about anything.”

Novak, who won the Lincoln Heritage Conference Tournament title two weeks ago, is the top seed and is attempting to become the Lady Bruins’ first region singles champ since Allison Shaw in 1997.

Novak lost to Elizabethtown senior Natalie Fiepke in last year’s final and she recognized the significance of possibly winning it all this season – though she was a little surprised at how long it’s been since a Lady Bruin had won one.

“It would be pretty important,” Novak said. “I never really knew (it’s been that long). That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that, but I knew they hadn’t had one in a while. That would definitely be big if I could achieve that.”

Keys has emerged as a legitimate threat to ruin the run of Novak vs. Fiepke in tournament finals. Novak and Fiepke have met in the last two conference finals and last year’s region final, but Keys nearly knocked off Fiepke in the semifinals.

Fiepke rallied for a 4-6, 6-1, 1-0 (10-5) win, but Keys pointed out that she didn’t even take a game off Fiepke in the region semifinals last season. So despite the loss, Keys’ performance gives her plenty of momentum.

“I know the errors I made,” Keys said, “and I think I can do better this time, not make the same mistakes as last time.”

Knocking off Elizabethtown, though, won’t be easy.

No matter the cast of players, Elizabethtown seems to reload every season as new stars emerge. This season is no different after the Lady Panthers lost three senior doubles players from their region team and replaced them with sophomores Toni Pfeiffer and Carley Pyles and eighth-grader Laura Hinkle.

Adding that group to Fiepke and juniors Lauran Berger and Mackenzie Snow resulted in Elizabethtown’s 12th straight conference title.

“There’s always pressure there just when you’ve had your team do so well every year,” Berger said. “There’s always pressure to follow up and do just as good the year after, so we’re just going into seeing it as the same as last year.”

In terms of something to prove this week, Berger feels she’s at the top of that list.

After being seeded third at singles last season, qualifying for State and then winning a match at State, she is seeded sixth this season and would technically need to pull an upset to reach the semifinals and qualify for State.

Berger started the season playing No. 1 doubles with Snow but with Fiepke hobbled, Coach Karen Henson switched her back to singles just a week before the conference tournament, where she lost in the semifinals to Novak.

Though Berger said she had good chemistry with Snow, the move back to singles has gone well, and her seed has only given more fuel to the fire.

“I was kind of surprised when I got my seed, but luckily I got a very good draw so being a 6 seed, it kind of made me want to do even better, kind of prove than I’m better than a 6 seed,” Berger said. “It’s definitely fired me up and made me want to prove some people wrong.”

Ryan O’Gara can be reached at 270-505-1754 or rogara@thenewsenterprise.com.