PUEBLO — A year ago, LiChen Liao experienced disappointment at the Class 4A boys tennis state tournament. He and Ivan Calderon advanced to the semifinals of the No. 1 doubles bracket only to get outsted by Mullen’s Greg McMullan and Dante Dino.
He entered the 2021 tournament as the No. 2 singles player for Niwot and was ready to shoulder the expectations of performing well on his own shoulders. They were strong enough to hold up as he jumped ahead of George Washington’s Owen Duffy and never looked back.
He cruised to get a 6-1, 6-3 win — giving the Cougars their only championship of the year.
“It feels really good,” Liao said. “I’ve worked really hard for this, and I’ve been able to accomplish the things I wanted to do this season.”
He provided a bit of sunshine on the team’s overall performance during the final day of matches at Pueblo City Park. Luke Weber had battled back from his loss in the No. 1 singles semifinals and reached the third-place match but couldn’t overcome Denver South’s Raphael Wieland, who won the match 7-5, 6-4.
In No. 3 singles, Alan Wilcox was looking to add to his family’s tennis legacy by winning a state title on the same courts his brother Neil claimed a pair of No. 1 singles titles on. His effort also fell short. He had Cheyenne Mountain’s Steven Zhou down a set early, but the Red-Tailed Hawks junior rallied to get a 1-6, 6-3, 6-2 win.
That No. 3 singles title also helped Cheyenne Mountain rally to tie Kent Denver in team points and the two schools were named co-champions when all matches were said and done.
Niwot finished third with 40 points, which is a slight disappointment considering the Cougars had won the team title last year.
They were out of the team race heading into Saturday so they wanted to place all of their emphasis on winning their individual matchups which they all figured out in their own way is a very tough ask.
“It’s very difficult,” Wilcox said. “There is a lot of pressure because it’s state and you have to perform well, especially when you’re following Neil.”
The two results shouldn’t be compared as they’re completely different players and took very different journeys through their tennis careers.
“I started my tennis career at the bottom of JV and had to work my way to here,” Wilcox said. “It was definitely hard work.”
It’s that level of work that helped the Cougars claim a team title last year and they have every intention of getting back to that level again. Weber is a junior and Liao is a sophomore and they both should be back in Pueblo in a year’s time.
The hope is that by then, the team will be more rounded out and have the depth needed to leave Southern Colorado with championship hardware.
“We have to work on our doubles,” coach Aimee Keronen said. “We have to do more work on our doubles in the offseason and get these guys playing in more tournaments.”
In the No. 2 singles third-place match, Dawson’s Tyler Burridge took the first set but ultimately lost 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 to D’Evelyn’s Carter Smith. Burridge will also be back as a senior next season and will take aim at a better result at next year’s state tournament.