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Centaurus junior Keller Hartline is the Warriors' first qualifier for the state tennis tournament in 19 years.
Paul Aiken
Centaurus junior Keller Hartline is the Warriors’ first qualifier for the state tennis tournament in 19 years.

LAFAYETTE — No Centaurus boys tennis player has cracked the 16-man state tournament since 1994. Current junior No. 1 singles player Keller Hartline has never been to the Class 4A state tournament in Pueblo, not even to watch.

On Thursday, Hartline will make his first appearance at the state tournament. When he does, he will do so as the Warriors’ first male qualifier in 19 years.

Heading to Pueblo as the only Warriors player to qualify in his lifetime, Hartline is honored by the opportunity to return Centaurus to the state tournament.

“I’m really excited to see all the effort pay off,” Hartline said. “I’m just happy to be in this position.”

In 1993, the Warriors qualified four players — Keith Gable, Eric Fallik, Matt Pisha and Christian Lehmann. The last state qualifiers before Hartline were Nick Ohrt and Zack Raibley, who made the cut in 1994 as a No. 4 doubles pair.

Hartline’s rise to ending the Warriors’ state tournament drought has been meteoric. He’s the Warriors’ top gun now, but two short years ago he was a low-ladder junior varsity player. A year before that, he didn’t even play tennis.

Picking up the sport just before his first year of high school, Hartline played No. 3 doubles on junior varsity as a freshman in 2011. He was also the manager for the Warriors’ girls team, which has had plenty of recent success including Glenna Gee-Taylor placing fourth at No. 1 singles last season.

Through hours of extra work after practices, Hartline quickly played his way up the ladder to No. 2 singles in 2012 before finishing second to Longmont’s Jake Fell at the 4A Region 5 tournament to claim a state berth this season.

Hartline likely will be the only player at the state tournament who can say he went from team manager to main man in three short seasons.

“I just decided that I really liked it and I started playing more and more,” Hartline said. “I started playing over the summer and year-round. I made huge improvements and that helped me make it to where I am now.”

His goal has been state since the season’s outset and Hartline is dedicated to his own improvement. But the Warriors’ captain spends much of his time focused on the progression of the program as a whole.

Perhaps more than how well he internalizes her coaching, Hartline’s attention to the team has endeared him to first-year head coach Julie Daniel.

“It’s always your goal as a coach to have a player meet their personal goals and Keller has had that light in his eyes since he was a freshman and understands that if you work hard, you often get to go to state,” Daniel said. “It’s exciting for us to see him be successful. He’ll hit with anybody and he’s so encouraging and supportive of his teammates.”

After the first day of practice this season, the Warriors hardly had enough players to field a junior varsity. But through Hartline’s leadership and effort from the players themselves, Daniel said, the Warriors raised their numbers and strengthened their ranks.

“I was like, ‘Guys, go find some friends,'” Daniel said. “They did. Keller brought in a friend, some other people brought in friends and now we have a group that is committed and competitive.”

Most of the current Warriors, who finished fourth at regionals, are juniors, so Hartline and Daniel said the prospect of taking a group to next year’s state tournament is promising. In fact, two other positions were one match away from the state tournament.

Junior Kyle Schutter at No. 3 singles, and junior Izaak Sulka and sophomore Justin Krawetz at No. 3 doubles, lost at regionals in playback matches for state tournament berths. Having come so close, Hartline’s example of sustained drive and determination gives them confidence for next season.

“He’s definitely the example,” Schutter said. “He started incredibly low and he rocketed upwards. It just shows that it honestly doesn’t matter how good you are when you first start. It matters how hard you’re willing to work.”

Breaking forgotten ground for the Warriors, Hartline has worked to reach his new plateau. Daniel said his ability to analyze himself and his opponent and grow stronger as each mach progresses will serve him well in the learning process each player’s first trip to state promises to be.

If a new challenge is what he wants, Hartline will get it. He’s drawn 2011 No. 1 singles champion David Mitchell from Kent Denver in the first round.

“He’s a very good player,” Hartline said with a grin. “It will be fun to play him and I’m excited for it. I’ll just go out there and do my best and see what happens.”

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