071319 garden city open-1-tm.jpg

Caleb Warnken of Corvallis was denied a shot at the State A boys singles championship this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. But that won't stop the three-sport standout from enjoying the game and competing in the future. He plans to play club tennis at Grand Canyon University.

MISSOULA — Caleb Warnken was supposed to be scratching and clawing for a State A tennis championship this week in Billings.

He did a lot of homework to get ready. Ever since last May when he walked off the court with third-place singles hardware at the state meet in Kalispell, he's been taking tennis more seriously.

Earning all-state honors as a soccer and basketball player earlier this school year was nice and all. But Warnken was the heir apparent to earn a state championship in the Magic City. That makes this week tough to swallow.

"Honestly it's more painful right now," he said. "You just think back to this time last year getting ready for state. The nerves and stuff. Just to see it all come together would have been cool but I didn't get to do that."

Although his dad coaches the Corvallis varsity boys basketball team, tennis has become Caleb Warnken's passion. His mom, former Montana Grizzly women's tennis player Mindy (Greener) Warnken, may have something to do with that.

But mostly it's a matter of Caleb realizing his tennis potential and enjoying the all-on-his-shoulders aspects of singles.

"He's just so calm," said his dad, Zane Warnken. "He doesn't get frustrated. He doesn't try to over-hit. He just thinks.

"Like his mom says, 'He doesn't ruin the game like most people do for themselves.'"

Realizing he needed to keep his game sharp to reach the state chipper, Warnken started playing at least once a week as a high school senior, even when he was busy with other sports.

"In the heat of soccer and basketball season I played mostly on Sundays," said Warnken, who had offers to play tennis at small colleges but has instead elected to play on the club level for NCAA Division I Grand Canyon.

"I'd go to the Canyons (Athletic Club in Hamilton) and hit with the owner, Randy Ash, who was real nice to let me hit with him. He definitely helped my game a lot just hitting with him."

Ash is a former Montana Grizzly tennis player and coach who utilizes heavy topspin on his forehand stroke. He was the perfect sparring partner for Warnken as he prepared for the rigors of state.

"My ground strokes are more consistent than last year," the 6-foot-2 Warnken noted. "And I have a much better serve. I've been working on that a lot."

At a time when specialization is becoming more and more popular among preps, Warnken is a throwback. Not only does his all-state status in three sports look good on his athletic résumé, the cross-training helps a bunch with his tennis.

"His feet are so good and his hand-eye coordination is really good," Zane Warnken said. "Just his ability to do so many things on the basketball court helps him on the tennis court I believe."

Though he was denied an opportunity, Warnken will tell you the cancellation of the 2020 spring sports season isn't the end of the world. He saw it coming in March and that helped soften the blow in April.

Warnken's perspective is an endearing trait. He realizes the best part of his life is still in front of him and there's no use dwelling on what might have been.

"I don't really play tennis just to see how far it will get me in life, I play it because it's fun," said Warnken, who won the Western Montana Open boys U18 singles title last July in Missoula.

"If there are tournaments available this summer and they're not shut down by the 'rona (virus), I'll play as much as I can."

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

Load comments