He's long into his highly successful career with the Nicolet boys tennis team, but veteran Knights' coach Tim Koppa is happy to say he can still be surprised from time to time.

He's spent a lot of time this spring repeating a variation of this line as his youthful team succeeds again and again.

But after a strong regular season, Koppa was happy to say that on May 18 and 19, the Knights thoroughly and completely did the job, claiming four flights, including three in singles en route to defending their North Shore Conference championship.

'This group of boys is doing so many special things,' he said, 'especially given how many top-ranked kids we lost last year (to graduation).'

The Knights, who were also fifth in the inaugural Wisconsin High School Coaches Tennis Classic on May 20 and 21, took part in WIAA subsectional play on Monday, May 23, and sent qualifiers back to their own courts on Wednesday, May 25, for sectional competition (Marquette was the host).

The top four finishers in Flight 1 of both singles and doubles and the winners of Flight 2 in singles and doubles will automatically advance to the state individual tournament in Madison, June 2-4. In addition, the team sectional champion will advance to the state team tournament, June 10-11, back in Madison.

Although the Knights have been ranked as high as fourth in state polls, their chances of getting to team state are long because of the roadblock known as defending state champion Marquette.

But again, Koppa thinks of how many obstacles his players have overcome this season and said he wouldn't put anything past them this week.

'If you go straight by the math, I would tell you that we have no chance,' he said. 'But as I've said, these guys continue to surprise me.'

Conference tourney

The team this year is a unique mix of new and old, and that did the trick in the conference tournament, as freshman Jaden Aranda at first singles and four-year letter-winning senior Rafi Barash at second singles led the charge, earning surprising flight titles for the Knights.

Aranda downed Grafton (7-5, 6-3) and Cedarburg (6-4, 7-5) opponents before downing talented newcomer Patrick Conta of Whitefish Bay, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, in the final.

'And the last time they played, Patrick beat Jaden handily,' said a pleased Koppa.

At two, Barash, who has played many positions in his long career at Nicolet, earned a sound conference title by downing Milwaukee Lutheran (6-0, 6-2); Cedarburg (6-1, 6-2) and Bay (6-2, 6-2) opponents.

'Rafi's had such a great season,' said Koppa. 'He should have won that bracket, and he deserved to win it.'

Another singles champ was newcomer Ben Chester in the fourth spot, who downed opponents from Milwaukee Lutheran (6-0, 6-3); and Cedarburg before outlasting Bay's Jack Gonzales (4-6, 6-3, 6-3) in the final.

'He had just lost to Gonzales a few days ago; (it was) just a great day for him,' said Koppa of Chester.

The third doubles team of Julian Lowe and Eytan Robinson was also a title winner, defeating opponents from Port Washington (6-0, 6-1); Bay (6-1, 2-6, 6-2) and Homestead (6-3, 6-3).

The first doubles team of Jack Steinberger and Eli Winter (7-5, 7-5) and the second team of Sam Scribner and Ari Robinson (6-3, 7-5) both dropped tough finals to Homestead opponents. At third singles, Sunil Sabnis was third after falling in a three-set semifinal to a Homestead opponent.

Koppa has won many conference titles in his long career, but he is especially enjoying this particular one.

'We're going to celebrate this one,' he said. 'There was some tough work that had to be done here, and now to finally get the conference bar (the symbol of the title) in hand is a great thing; they earned it. We haven't lost a conference match in two years, and it's not for lack of good competition.'

In the coaches' classic where Koppa rested some people periodically, the Knights defeated Fond du Lac (5-2,) dropped a tough 4-3 decision to Brookfield Central and then edged Eau Claire Memorial and Green Bay Notre Dame by respective 4-3 scores. Koppa was happy to get the good outstate competition provided by Memorial and Notre Dame (which he said might be the best team in Division 2 in the state).