• Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Niwot's Taylor Thulson is battling for the No. 1 singles spot on the Cougars this season.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Niwot's Julia Pentz, who played No. 1 singles for the Cougars last season, returns to lead the Cougars this year.



NIWOT — Perhaps the best match of the year has already happened.

A three-hour, three-set epic encounter that was witnessed by all of about 10 Niwot players and coaches.

Julia Pentz and Taylor Thulson played the first of their preseason challenge matches for the No. 1 spot on the Cougars’ ladder and it may very well have set the tone for upcoming Niwot season.

“They are so dead even and I could go either way on them,” said Cougars coach Aimee Keronen, whose top three — including No. 3 singles player Rachel Drake — all return with regional championships under their belt for another run. “It’s nice to have that top two, and one is obviously going to have it a little tougher than the other, because every school has at least one good player.”

Keronen, who knows expectations are always high around Niwot, feels like with the addition of the new Class 3A level and a more streamlined 4A regional tournament that her team can qualify a lot more players and crack the top three in Pueblo in May.

The Niwot rule is that you have to beat someone twice during qualifying to earn that spot. Pentz and Thulson are both super competitive and as Keronen says, “they are almost too nice to each other, because they know each other so well.”

But it’s that competition in practice that ultimately make not just Pentz and Thulson — who won that first challenge match — better, but the Cougars as a whole.

“We have maybe five freshmen that may make varsity, and with all the rearrangements, now my goal is to be top three,” Keronen said. “Winning the region would be nice too.”

The Cougars won the region last year by a single point over Holy Family (now in 3A) and are the favorites to repeat in a region that this year will be hosted by Erie.

Drake, would love nothing more than to place at state in May, and is hoping that the experience of a solid freshman campaign can bolster her chances.

“I learned that nothing else really matters and that I can play my game. I know how to hit my shots and the best positions to put myself in,” said Drake, who bowed out in the state quarterfinals last year. “I am worthy of being at state and I know I can do it.

“I also feel like I can step up and be a leader of this team.”

Said Keronen of her No. 3 singles player: “It’s a great spot for her, because there are not a lot of teams that have three solid singles players.”

The Cougars get the season underway next Wednesday at home against Colorado Academy.

Jon Yunt: or