HAMPDEN — Every day the Mt. Blue High School boys tennis team extends the season, the Cougars are setting new firsts. Three players to the Round of 32 in the state singles tournament? That was a first. A player, Evan Backus, advancing to the Sweet 16 of the singles tournament? That was a first, too. Reaching the regional finals as a team? That’s another first, coach Zac Conlogue said.

“It’s been a good year for Mt. Blue tennis, that’s for sure,” Conlogue said.

On Friday, the Cougars took a 3-2 win over top-seed Hampden, moving the Cougars to the Class A North regional championship at the University of Maine next week, where they’ll take on either Lewiston or Brunswick.

The key to Mt. Blue’s success has been the play of three seniors — Backus, Jack Leopold and Alex Bunnell. All three won their singles matches Friday — Leopold and Bunnell in three sets. Their steady play has been the strength of the Cougars all season.

“It’s been exciting. I’ve been here for three years now, so it’s basically been my group. My first year, we were getting smoked. Progressively, we’ve gotten better and better every year,” Conlogue said.

The senior trio has played tennis together since junior high, when they’d play at Kineowatha Park in Wilton. Backus and Leopold were next door neighbors. The friendly rivalry stoked back then still burns today.

“We’ve always had a little rivalry going, but it’s good, because it makes us better,” Leopold said.

Added Bunnell: “I say I can beat both of them, but I am third singles.”

Conlogue saw this coming early in the season, when the trio all advanced to the semifinals of the Hall-Dale Invitational, a strong exhibition tournament featuring players from around central Maine. Backus beat Leopold in the finals, after Leopold beat Bunnell in the semis.

“Every practice, they stay after, an hour after, every practice. They all want to get better. They all want to beat each other. I think that pushes them to get even better,” Conlogue said. “They’re used to three setters, because they always play each other in three setters.”

The intense practice matches certainly paid off against Hampden. While Backus won his match with Tyler Arbo in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, Leopold and Bunnell each went three sets. Leopold won the first and third sets of his match against Brandon Chasse, 6-0, but Chasse took the middle one, 7-6.

“He really picked up the pace in the second pace. He was outhitting me,” Leopold said.

Bunnell took set one from Kyle Townsend, 6-3, before Townsend won set two, 7-6. The third set was another nailbiter, with Bunnell taking a 7-6 win.

“My legs are pretty tired. I’m exhausted. That’s probably the closest match I’ve ever played,” Bunnell said minutes after leaving the court.

Bunnell and Backus have been steady singles players for the Cougars for a few years. Leopold’s play this season has been a revelation. After taking his sophomore year off, Leopold returned last season.

“He came back and played second doubles for us last year, so he improved a lot in the offseason,” Conlogue said.

“That’s been a huge help for us. We’ve gone pretty far since,” Backus said.

Backus’ ascent to the No. 1 singles position is the result of four years of steady improvement. As a freshman, Backus played some exhibition matches. When the third singles spot opened his sophomore season, Backus claimed it. Last season, he played No. 2 for much of the year.

“Evan picked up tennis freshman year. He’s clearly gotten,” Bunnell said. He meant to add better, but instead, Bunnell pointed to Backus, who was winning a point in his match. “He’s athletic.”

Watching Backus play has helped his game improve, Leopold said.

“I’ve learned a lot from Evan. He has a real unique style of play. He can figure out his opponent, how to move him around, and I’ve learned a lot from that. I’ve improved a lot this year from Evan’s style of play,” Leopold said.

At the state singles tournament last weekend, Bunnell and Leopold reached the Round of 32, while Backus advanced to the Round of 16.

“Seeing the high level of play helps us all,” Bunnell said. “We surprised a lot of people. It was a lot of fun seeing that competition.”

Added Conlogue: “I’m excited to see them have the success I think they deserve.”

Leopold will attend the University of Maine next year, while Bunnell will head to the University of New Hampshire. Both are considering playing club tennis. Backus will go to Maine Maritime Academy, and join the soccer team. The Mt. Blue senior trio know each match could be their last competitive match.

“This is it,” Backus said. “We’re trying to make our run.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

<URL destination=””>[email protected]

</URL>Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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