PHOTO BY – Jayden Eastman (Courtesy of Green Canyon Girls Tennis) | Back Row (Left to Right) – Liz Murri, Bailey Huebner, Liv Phillips, Tori Jeppson, Maren mcKenna, Carly Nielson, Emma Murri | Front Row (Left to Right) – Macy Huish, Ali Suhaka, Erin Nielsen, Kate Reeder, Brooke Robinson.
NORTH LOGAN – As the semifinals for the UHSAA 4A Girls Tennis Championship concluded, Camille Jeppson needed one question answered. As head coach of the Green Canyon girls tennis team, she was far too distracted by the five matches and seven girls she would need to coach in the upcoming championship matches. So Jeppson turned to the parents assembled at the Liberty Park Tennis Center and asked the simple question.
“Can anyone catch us?”
The short answer came back.
With Green Canyon holding a spot in every championship match, no other team could accumulate enough points to catch the Wolves for first place in the championships. Even if every player on the team lost every title match, Green Canyon as a team would be state champions for girls tennis.
Relief surged through Jeppson. For weeks she’d fretted about this tournament. Every night lying awake at 3 a.m. still conjuring up ideas for drills and how to have her girls run them. The constant need to prepare this Green Canyon team for the final test occupied her mind.
Everyone seemed to expect her team to win, but Jeppson hadn’t been able to shake off doubts. She’d been practically mortified when, before any of the matches even began, someone asked her “so how does it feel having state in the bag?”
The semifinals had been a supremely stressful time. In a way, the penultimate round of matches was the team championship. Both Green Canyon and Crimson Cliffs had players in the semifinal round. Whoever put the most players in the championship round would hold a significant advantage. Huge was the fact that all three Green Canyon singles players would face someone from Crimson Cliffs.
“When we played (Crimson Cliffs) in St. George, they were very close. They were tiebreaker matches to get those wins,” Jeppson said. “I was very nervous for those semifinal matches.”
But now, with Crimson Cliffs only advancing to one of the championship matches, the math meant Green Canyon couldn’t falter and Jeppson could finally relax. Her success as a coach was guaranteed. Inside her head, Jeppson screamed in jubilation. But it had to stay inside her own head. All of her joy had to be contained to herself. After all, she still had seven girls that had not achieved their final goal of being called state champion. And no team wants to call itself state champion with all of its players wearing silver second-place medals.
Unfortunately, Jeppson could do very little for her girls at this point. In her playing days, Jeppson could have won these matches herself, being a former Utah State women’s tennis player. But those days are gone. And so are all the days of preparation. The only consolation for Jeppson is that she did everything possible to make her girls ready. And they took a step beyond even that.
By sunset, the grounds of Green Canyon High School are largely deserted. Unless there’s some event happening, the parking lot is empty and the many paths around campus are devoid of people.
On the east side of the school, though, you can often find a small group of students gathered under the lights on the tennis courts. After a hard practice on those same tennis courts earlier in the day, Coach Jeppson would send out a text: “Who can play tonight at 9?” Whoever could make it would show up. For these kids daylight doesn’t keep enough hours to give these kids enough time to hone their skills. The nighttime hours have to pull their weight as well.
The invite wasn’t for just the girl tennis players. Players from the boys tennis team show up as well. For the boys, it’s the offseason. There’s nothing at stake for them. For the girls, though, this is training for now. The season is now and every match matters. And practicing with the boys is a chance to cut their teeth against the best competition available.
“We just wanted to get practice against high-level tennis,” senior Olivia Phillips said. “Consistent balls, powerful balls. Sometimes we would have them focus on one specific thing, like ‘Oh, I missed that volley, hit that at me again.’ We weren’t just playing for fun. It was a very concentrated, very focused on how we could improve ourselves.”
Among those at any of these nighttime practices would be Maren McKenna, another senior. Just like everyone else on the team, goes to these extra sessions regularly to hone the skills from practice. She’s going all-out in her goal to complete a three-peat as state champion in second doubles. Only she didn’t expect to be at the second doubles slot this year. Things didn’t go the way McKenna expected for her senior season.
Forming a team out of an inherently individualistic sport like tennis is a mild problem, but one that high school and collegiate programs have worked out a solid solution to. Each “game” between two teams features a set number of matches between individual players. At the high school level there are five matches, three of those being singles matchups and two being doubles.
The singles and doubles matches are categorized into first, second, and third singles and first and second doubles. Players on teams are designated to play in one of these slots. Rules dictate that the best players are meant to compete in first singles (or first doubles) with the next best players in second singles/doubles and so on. Teams play out the five matches and whichever team has the most wins out of those earns a win.
Figuring out who will play in each of these slots is a task Jeppson has to face down every summer and the decisions aren’t always easy, nor do they always appear fair. Jeppson has to do what she feels is best for the team. Green Canyon returned four out of seven players from the previous year, three of which had earned individual state titles in singles or doubles: Bailey Huebner, McKenna and Phillips.
The easiest decision was keeping Bailey Huebner at first singles where she won the state title as a freshman. Emma Murri, who fell in the 2021 third singles championship match, stayed at that singles slot while her sister, Liz Murri, made the jump to varsity by playing second singles, replacing Halle Kendrick.
Figuring out the doubles lineup proved to be a little more complicated. One player from each of the state championship doubles partnerships left. Alice Wilkinson, who won first doubles with Phillips, left and Ava Checketts, who won second doubles with McKenna, also graduated. The logical choice at the beginning seemed to be pairing the remaining two players, Phillips and McKenna, to fill the first doubles slot and then form an entirely new team to fill second doubles. The two players chosen for that were freshman Tori Jeppson (yes, the daughter of Coach Jeppson) and sophomore Carly Nielsen.
Those were the lineups that Coach Jeppson initially settled on as she worked through pairings during a preseason tournament in southern Utah. But she had one more pairing idea to try – pairing the veterans with the younger players. So Jeppson swapped McKenna and Tori Jeppson, moving Tori into first doubles with Phillips and McKenna back into second doubles with Nielsen.
A decision like that didn’t come without consequences. It meant keeping McKenna, who had been eying a promotion to first doubles for her senior year, back in second doubles while the coach’s freshman daughter took her spot. All of the work McKenna put in seemed to be getting overlooked, perhaps in part to her commitment to playing basketball as her primary sport.
“I wanted to be great and it was really, really hard for me to take that hit early on in the season to be bumped down from first to second,” McKenna said. “Just because it was like I was getting pinned because tennis wasn’t my primary sport. So that was hard.”
Coach Jeppson had some hesitancy to make the move for multiple reasons. Firstly, she knew McKenna wanted to play first doubles and knew the two-time state champion was plenty good enough to do so. But also there was the fact that playing a freshman at the varsity level isn’t something you do lightly, much less pair her with another young player.
“It was hard to leave Tori and Carly at that second doubles spot because you had two really young girls,” Jeppson said. “Who was going to take the lead? Who was gonna be the one that was boosting the other one up all the time?”
And aside from those two reasons, there was the obvious potential appearance of favoritism. So Jeppson made sure to run the decision by her assistant coaches first.
“That was a hard move for me to make. I was afraid I was going to be very much questioned,” Jeppson said. “So I consulted with John (Mickelson), the other assistant, about making that move because this was my daughter I was bumping up.”
The politics behind the decision may have been touchy, but the results of the new arrangements were anything but. Jeppson said the new pairings “worked great” and were “the best combinations that we could have.” Phillips and McKenna were able to be even more effective as leaders of each team rather than pairing up themselves and leaving younger players to fend for themselves in second doubles.
“We had great leaders in Oliva and Maren with their partners,” Jeppson said. “In the past, they had been the underclassmen with the seniors and they had both learned that they’ve got to pull their partner along sometimes.”
By the end of the year, whatever negative feelings or worries may have been present were washed away by a tidal wave of victories. The partnerships worked well and the two doubles teams advanced to their respective championship games with relative ease. Even if spending her final year in second doubles wasn’t what she wanted initially, McKenna wouldn’t change how things actually worked out.
“At the end of the day, we won,” McKenna said. “And I wouldn’t change the season for anything.”
After the first set of her championship match at the second doubles slot, McKenna and her sophomore partner, Carly Nielsen, were trailing the Desert Hills pair of Taylee Anderson and Brooklyn Price who’d won the opening set 7-6 (11-9 in the tiebreaker). Despite this loss, the two Wolves weren’t fazed. They had no reason to be. Multiple times previously McKenna and Nielsen had faced a first set loss and pulled it out. There was no reason for this match to deviate from those precedents. And there was the fact that McKenna felt she and Nielsen had an advantage in stamina and could outlast Desert Hills.
“Desert Hills had a previously really tough match that went into a third set and so they were already tired. And you could tell after that first set that that just made them even more tired. Me and Carly, I trust in our ability and our stamina. And we were able to be them through having more stamina and just keeping our energy up the entire game.”
Most of all for McKenna, winning wasn’t just about a singular title. For her, it meant finishing a dominant tennis career the right way. McKenna had worked her tail off at every practice, been to all of the night-time sessions, overcome the mental challenge of remaining in second doubles. There was no way she’d let dropping one set keep her from a three-peat.
“This year especially I was not about to lose senior year,” McKenna said. “After taking state sophomore and junior year, I was like ‘there is no way that I’m going to end on a loss.’ So that was my drive behind it was just, I wasn’t willing to lose and I’d do anything to win.”
After falling in that first set, McKenna and Nielson won the second set in dominating fashion 6-2. In the final set, that stamina really came into play as the Green Canyon duo won the deciding set 7-5.
“We finished out super strong,” McKenna said. “We were able to finish what we started.”
As McKenna and Nielsen were in the process of winning their state title, the other Green Canyon doubles team wrapped up their first-place finish as well. Phillips and Tori Jeppson cleanly beat Whitney Matheson and Camryn Stanger of Crimson Cliffs 6-3, 6-0.
Phillips, a senior who also won state in first double s last year, said it being able to take home back-to-back titles was a “humbling experience,” especially given that she was partnered all year with her second cousin.
“It was just really awesome this year to finish out my senior year in such a cool way,” Phillips said. “The fact that I was able to play with a relative of mine as my partner was so awesome. I really couldn’t have asked for anything better than the experience than I had.”
Coach Jeppson didn’t spend much time watching (or coaching) her daughter in that final match – a common trend as the coach was often far too nervous when coaching her children and felt it better to leave that job to her assistants – but her years of playing and coaching have given her the ability to keep an eye on multiple courts and be able to keep track of the scores. And much like learning of her team winning the state title, the realization of her daughter winning a state title in doubles came rather suddenly.
“I remember just thinking ‘OK, they got the first set,’” Jeppson said. “And then I remember thinking ‘It’s 5-0 in the second set. It’s 5-0, they’re gonna win!’”
The match Jeppson was there for was Emma Murri’s singles match. Jeppson wanted to make sure Murri closed out her contest 6-2, 7-5 against Ridgeline’s Luz Perez Spencer who had, unfortunately, begun cramping and it was holding her back.
“I was afraid that Emma would show too much sympathy,” Jeppson said. “And so I was really trying to support her there and just keep her going. And Lucy put up a good fight there in that second set.”
The results of the championship round left Green Canyon in possession of three individual titles, two in doubles and one in singles. Huebner lost gallantly in three sets to Dixie’s Kylie Kezos. Liz Murri also lost to a Dixie player, Fiona Fackrell.
For Jeppson, being involved in success is a never-ending grind. After being there for Tori’s state championship win, Coach Jeppson became simply Mom Jeppson as she went with one of her other children to an awards banquet the same night as the championships.
As for the chase for a potential team three-peat, the Wolves are set up well. All three singles players return and two of the four doubles players return as well. A new challenge begins for them, though. Huebner and Liz Murri are in need of avenging their title game loss. Also, Tori Jeppson and Nielsen must become leaders for the doubles teams the way McKenna and Phillips did this year.
Day or night, the Green Canyon girls never stop going forward.