By Brett Marshall
In just their second year of playing varsity doubles together, Garden City High School’s Daniel Darter and Will Keller had made a big leap into the state level competition.
From their sophomore season as regional champions, the Buffs’ duo went 3-2 at the Class 6A state tournament en route to an 11th place finish, ending their first season as doubles partners with a glossy 33-8 record.
They followed it with a sterling junior campaign, going 31-6, again winning regionals, and then posted a 2-3 record at the state tournament, finishing eighth while helping the team to an 11th place standing.
So it would only figure that their senior season would be another step up the ladder.
While the final story has yet to be written, the Buffs’ duo entered the May 3 regional tournament with a less than sparkling 16-7 record, but did breeze through four matches en route to their third straight regional gold-medal performance, improving to 20-7. Now it’s on to state on May 10-11 with a chance at some measure of redemption.
“This semester has certainly been a whole different animal,” said Keller, noting that Mother Nature had pretty much wreaked havoc with early-season practices. “We had snow early on and then it just seemed like it was miserable weather every day.”
Additionally, Darter was involved in a school play, “The Heart of Robin Hood,” and missed a couple of tournaments. As a result, Keller played singles for the first time, something he had always wanted to do.
“We had a rough start, losing a couple of matches that we might not have lost in the past,” Keller said. “It seemed like we had almost a month between first and last tournaments. The weather has just been awful.”
But in the past week, the top Buffs’ doubles team has captured the Western Athletic Conference title again (4-0) and then swept through four matches, including a straight-set victory over teammates Tyler and Nathan Morren in the finals.
“I think we’re just now getting comfortable playing again,” Darter said. “The season has been like a heart murmur. Then, I had an accident on the set of the play and had two staples put in my head. It’s just been weird, because sometimes we just didn’t know if we’d play. You can’t do anything about it – you just have to take it and move on.”
While not exactly subscribing to the tenet of having “senioritis,” Darter said the focus was not as intense as it had been the past two seasons.
“I’ve just been trying to focus on enjoying my time and not worry about things,” Darter said. “When we lost some of our matches, we weren’t as consistent as we’ve been.”
Yet both Keller and Darter insist that when they’re playing well, each has shown improvements in their game from their junior seasons.
“We’re both hitting better ground strokes, and getting more consistent there,” Keller said. “My serve has been a drawback. We tried to change it early and it didn’t work out, so I’ve gone back to my previous serve, so I don’t double-fault like I had been. Daniel’s just really consistent at the net and he’s more reliable playing there.”
Darter echoed his teammate’s assessment of how much they’ve improved without it showing in the team’s record.
“Because I’ve missed some practices and tournaments, we haven’t been quite as sharp,” Darter said. “But after regionals, that felt more like the way we’ve played in the past. That was a lot of fun.”
Keller plans to attend Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., next year, where he will study business. The only tennis he plans to play will be intramurals, so the state tourney this coming week will be his competitive swan song.
It will be the same for Darter.
He has been offered a scholarship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he will study music and theater, so this too will be his final appearance on the competitive court.
“In many ways it’s been a cool senior season,” Darter said. “For the next week, I think we’ll be totally focused on our tennis and getting ready for state. We’d like to improve on our finish from a year ago.”