LOUISVILLE -- Watch Monarch senior Justin Nguyen gut his way through yet another victorious match, and a habitual routine begins to emerge.
During every point break, Nguyen dutifully makes his way to the towel he always hangs on the courtside fence. When Nguyen wipes the sweat from his face, the exercise is as much a mental reboot as it is a practical cleansing.
Earlier in his Monarch career, Nguyen all too frequently allowed his emotions to override the talent he brought to the court. Bearing a calmer mind this season, in addition to a more focused approach, Nguyen has torn through a stellar campaign that included a regional championship victory last week.
Beginning Thursday, Nguyen will lead the biggest Monarch contingent in years at the Class 5A state tournament at the Gates Tennis Center in Denver.
"He made a routine this year, which I'd never seen him do before," Monarch coach Mary Prassa said. "It's very common for high-level tennis players. After a point is over, they have a routine. (Nguyen) puts a towel on the fence and he always goes back and towels off. Mentally, he's dismissing the previous point and getting mentally ready for the next point. He'd never done that before.
"I've seen more improvement from last year to this year than any of the other years. He's steadily gotten better, but I've seen more of a jump this year."
Nguyen qualified for the state tournament three years ago as a freshman playing No. 3 singles, but he lost his opening-round match and did not have an opportunity to compete in the back draw. He never imagined it would take three seasons to return to that stage.
Nguyen qualified at No. 1 singles as a sophomore, but a scheduling conflict with an event at school kept Nguyen from competing. Nguyen missed qualifying for the state tournament last year after losing a three-set thriller against Fairview's No. 1 player Eli Winegardner, who went on to place fourth at state.
"It's my last year and I've worked really hard," Nguyen said. "I'm going to try and go as far as I can this season. In the offseason, I worked really hard. I wouldn't say my strokes have improved all that much, but my mental game has. I've always been pretty calm with my point construction and I think I have a better awareness of the game.
"I would just play and not really consider where I was playing the ball. I would just hit it to hit it."
Nguyen's more focused approach has paid huge dividends this season. He has avenged last year's regional loss by posting a pair of victories against Winegardner this year. Nguyen's only two losses all season have occurred against Loveland's Joey Diaz -- Nguyen's doubles partner on the club circuit and a potential quarterfinal-round opponent on Thursday if both players win their respective first round matches.
"I haven't played there since freshman year and I still remember how nervous I got then," Nguyen said. "I'm definitely just focused on the first round right now. But that second round, if we both get there, each time I've gotten closer. So we'll see how it plays out if we both get there."
Nguyen's ascension has been the highlight of an impressive all-around season for the Coyotes. Nguyen will be joined at state by Monarch's No. 3 singles player, senior Danny Wright, in addition to the Coyotes' top two doubles teams -- No. 1 tandem Jason Ferry and Jason Nguyen, and the No. 2 team of Derek Wright and Chad Brown.
The Coyotes finished second to perennial power Cherry Creek at the Region 3 tournament last week.
"It's fantastic and I'm so excited," Prassa said. "The school is excited. Usually you don't get people coming up and congratulating you for a second-place at regionals. But they know the legacy of Cherry Creek. I've had teachers and students congratulating me, and it's not even me, it's (the players). They're the ones doing this."
Follow Pat Rooney on Twitter: @prooney07