High School Sports

SM West sisters to battle in Kansas 6A girls tennis state semifinals

There will be a family feel and emotions will run high when Shawnee Mission West High School senior twin sisters Katherine and Josephine Cao square off in the semifinals of the Kansas Class 6A girls tennis state tournament on Saturday at the College Boulevard Activity Center.

“I do not like playing her at all,” said Katherine, following her 7-6 (7-3), 6-1 state quarterfinal victory over Blue Valley North’s Ellie Kuckelman on Friday. “It’s real competitive. I’m expecting a close match.”

Neither Cao sister lost a set during five matches the two played on Friday,the first day of the two-day state tournament. Josephine, who drew a first-round bye, only lost two games total in lopsided decisions over Laura Nicolae of Washburn Rural and Janel Dean of Olathe North. Katherine, meanwhile, defeated Linh Le of Garden City and Ashley Sherrow of Derby before eliminating Kuckelman in the quarterfinals.

The Cao sisters, who teamed together to win a doubles state championship a year ago, squared off recently in the singles final of the Sunflower League tournament. Katherine won that match.

“She’s playing really well, so I know it’ll be a difficult challenge,” Josephine said. “I’m OK if I lose to her. My sophomore year, I got sixth (at state) and lost to my sister. As long as I place better than I did then, I’m happy.”

Perhaps the toughest seat in the stadium on Saturday will most likely belong to Trinh Cao, the twins’ mother.

“It’s very tough,” Trinh said. “They’ve played each other a lot. I’ll just sit there and enjoy it … and not cheer for anyone.”

Semifinal matches in singles and doubles begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. Championship matches are slated to start at noon, with awards presented at 2 p.m.

Coach: “A strong second”

Sue Chipman has been the girls tennis coach at Shawnee Mission East long enough to know what her team can do. And, if she was being honest with herself, she knew going into the state tournament that the Lancers’ bid to win a fifth consecutive team state title was a longshot.

“I honestly think we’re going to be a strong second,” said Chipman, who began coaching girls tennis at the school in 1998. “Blue Valley North and their depth have gotten the better of us all season. Unless there’s some miracle about to occur, we’re probably second.”

Indeed, heading into Saturday morning’s semifinals, Blue Valley North looks well-positioned to knock off SM East. Both Mustangs doubles teams — Athena Tran and Lauren O’Brien, and Karen Yan and Evelyn Chang — advanced to the semifinals, and Chloe Kuckelman advanced to the semis in singles. SM East has one entry in singles — Sarah Wilcox — and doubles team Gretchen Cooper and Larkin McLiney still alive in the championship bracket.

Early singles upset

It didn’t take long for the Class 6A state tournament to register its first major upset.

While No. 2 seed Chloe Kuckelman of Blue Valley North was expected to make waves on Day 1, it was her twin sister, Ellie, who shocked the bracket with a 6-1, 7-5 upset of top-seeded Alexa Tiefel of Blue Valley in the second round.

Kuckelman steamrolled Tiefel, who entered the state tournament with a 21-1 singles record, in the first set before receiving much more resistance in the second. But Ellie managed to stay a game ahead until serving for the match and holding in the final game.

The victory pushed Ellie’s singles record this season to 21-6.

“I knew I’d be in for a tough match,” Ellie said. “I knew I just needed to keep executing my strategy, which was to stay aggressive and keep my shots deep.”

Ellie won her first-round match without the loss of a game. But her run ended in the quarterfinals in a 7-6 (7-3), 6-1 loss to SM West senior Katherine Cao.