Sports have always been a facet of life that has brought Sean and Cole Balen together.
Whether it’s the tennis court, basketball court or behind the sticks of a video-game controller during a match of FIFA, it’s not uncommon to find the brothers competing alongside or against each other.
“We do a lot of things together,” Cole said. “… We have a really fun, competitive relationship.”
This past fall, Sean, a senior, and Cole, a junior, showed what they’re able to accomplish when they combine their competitive drives together and work as a team.
The brothers paired up in doubles for the Archbishop Murphy High School boys tennis squad for their final season together on the court, and it didn’t take long for the Balens to find success.
The pair opened their campaign by winning the doubles title at the Class 2A District 1 Double Invite in early September, going 4-0 at the tournament without dropping a set. It ended up being a preview of what was to come at the district meet in mid-October.
Sean and Cole went on to win the 2A District 1 doubles championship and qualify for the 2A state tournament this Friday and Saturday at Nordstrom Tennis Center in Seattle. They made history in the process by becoming the first-ever Wildcats tennis players to qualify for state.
“It’s super special,” Sean said of earning the achievement alongside his brother. “Everyone that I tell I made it state and then say I made it to state with my brother, they’re like, ‘Wow!’ It just adds another layer.”
Tennis has always been a big part of life for the brothers. It’s a popular sport amongst their family.
Sean recalled hitting the courts with his brother and dad, Rob, who played at Gonzaga University, as early as 5 years old.
So, the Balens’ district championship match was both a nerve-wracking and special moment for the family.
“(Our parents) were both super into it,” Sean said. “My mom, especially in the final match, she’s covering her face. Our dad needs to separate himself because he gets super into it. … They’re both super into it and super proud of us, and they’ve both been super supportive of us throughout the entire thing.”
The Balens said their brotherly bond plays into their ability to communicate and work as a team on the court. They know each other’s games inside and out and know how to use their contrast in strengths — Cole is the power-hitter, Sean has the quickness to keep points alive at the net — to their advantage.
“We compliment each other well,” Cole said.
There’s also less pressure for the pair when it comes to making mistakes, as Sean quipped, “He’s my brother. He can’t get mad at me.”
“I know I’ll get it next time and he knows I’ll get it next time,” Cole added.
Archbishop Murphy coach Kathy Kenny said the pair’s unwavering determination also stands out.
“They never want to lose,” Kenny said. “If they get down (in the match), they never get down on themselves. There was a number of games where they were down even love-40 and they just keep at it and keep at it. … They just never look back.”
Sean and Cole have had to wait seven months to compete at state since winning their district championship. District 1 and many others on the west side of the Cascade Mountains play boys tennis in the fall, but the state tournament doesn’t take place until late May when schools on the east side that play in the spring have finished their district tournaments.
The duo has tried to remain sharp over the long layoff, but other commitments have limited practice time.
Both played for the Archbishop Murphy basketball team in the winter, and Sean finished up a run to the state tournament with the boys soccer team last week.
They’ve tried to get a doubles match in each weekend while finding other times to hit together inbetween it all.
“Juggling it has been a lot, but it’s fun for me” Sean said. “I wouldn’t say it’s stressful. I enjoy doing it as much as it is a lot.”
The commitment and success Sean and Cole have shown this year has left its imprint on the tennis program already. After watching the Balens make state, more players than ever are continuing to play in the offseason, Kenny said.
“I think it gives inspiration and motivation,” Kenny said. “We’ve already seen it impact the boys.”