Archbishop Murphy’s Cole Balen serves the ball during the Class 2A boys state tennis tournament at the Nordstrom Tennis Center in Seattle. Cole and his brother, Sean, placed seventh at state in doubles in 2023, but this season Cole swept his competition in straight sets to win the singles state title. (Photo courtesy Kathy Kenny)

Archbishop Murphy’s Cole Balen serves the ball during the Class 2A boys state tennis tournament at the Nordstrom Tennis Center in Seattle. Cole and his brother, Sean, placed seventh at state in doubles in 2023, but this season Cole swept his competition in straight sets to win the singles state title. (Photo courtesy Kathy Kenny)

Baseline-hitting Balen: Murphy’s first state tennis champion

After placing seventh in doubles last year, Balen claimed the singles title without dropping a set.

Cole Balen didn’t spend his last day of high school last Friday inside a classroom at Archbishop Murphy High School, completing finals and saying last goodbyes to classmates and teachers.

Instead, he spent it on the courts inside the Nordstrom Tennis Center in Seattle, winning his opening-round and quarterfinal matches for a spot in the Class 2A state boys singles semifinals the following day.

Balen topped North Kitsap’s Indigo Gallagher 6-0, 6-2 in the opening round and Fort Vancouver’s Andrew Walczyk 6-1, 6-3 in the quarters before winning against Sammamish’s Rafael Polito 6-1 in the first set with Polito retiring in the second of the semis.

Balen then bested Sequim’s Garrett Little, a player who finished runner-up in 2023 and third in 2022, in the finals 7-5, 6-1 to bring home the championship medal and earn Archbishop Murphy a share of the fourth-place team trophy.

The victory also slotted Balen into the history books as the Wildcats’ first state tennis champion.

“It just felt really nice. All the hard work paid off,” said Balen, who entered state as the Class 2A District 1 singles champion. “I (was raised in) a tennis family, so I’ve been playing my whole life, so it was just kind of nice to really see it come to fruition.”

At the 2023 district tournament Balen and his older brother Sean teamed up to play doubles and won the title, becoming the first Archbishop Murphy players to ever advance to the state tournament. The brothers went on to place seventh at state.

“It helped I had a year of (state-level) experience already. … I knew how to deal with the nerves, especially after the first match,” Balen said. “For singles, I think my strength would be my consistency at the baseline. … (I) tried to get to the net at some points in the (tournament) because I knew from my doubles experience, I can get some good volleys and put (them) away.

“The championship was definitely where I played my best tennis,” he continued. “I think it was also the most nerve-wracking because Garrett Little was really good. And he was a lefty. So I kind of had some experience playing with my brother (who also plays left-handed).”

Balen held the No. 1 varsity singles position all four years. He said he didn’t expect to win many matches as a freshman in 2021, but he still finished the season with a winning record. He then improved his game as a sophomore, placing third at district in singles and coming up one match shy of a state berth. He also said his expectations from freshman and sophomore year to his junior and senior years changed from just wanting to win matches to wanting to make state.

“As an underclassman, Cole did not seem to believe in himself enough to beat the top players,” Archbishop Murphy coach Kathy Kenny said. “But he has grown in his physical and mental game. … I think his doubles play with Sean last year helped him learn how many ways there are to win a point and how he can use strategy to attack and also defend rather than just trying to overpower as a lot of high school players try to do.

“I think we both believed he was the best player at the tournament this weekend,” Kenny continued, “He just needed to play his nine-times-out-of-10 consistency game, keeping balanced and poised, and he would win. … I am absolutely thrilled and grateful to have been Cole’s coach. There’s a lot of great high school players, but to be the one who works hard enough and cares enough to take it all the way to the top is a real treasure.”

Balen credits his teammate, senior Ethan Welter, for their days challenging each other during the regular season; Edmonds-Woodway sophomore Nalu Akiona for being a hitting partner during the offseason; and Kenny for her efforts with his mental preparation ahead of the state tournament.

“Throughout the season, she made sure my head was always in the game. (For example), ‘Never get too mad at yourself, always make sure … you’re balanced, focusing on the ball and the stroke and to make sure to always be ready because anything can happen,’” Balen said. “I thought as long as I’m playing my best tennis, I can definitely win it. … That Saturday, winning the state tournament is a great way to end my high school career.”

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