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Big Al's returns with bigger draws

ASHLAND — The 41st annual Big Al’s Tennis Tournament will feature the largest open singles brackets in years, a new venue for at least some of its matches and a slight bump in overall participation from last year’s event.

All of that, especially the women’s open singles draw and a favorable weather forecast, has tournament director Eric Danson feeling good about the 2016 Big Al’s, which begins Friday morning and wraps up Sunday at five sites across Ashland.

“We wanted to be bigger than we were last year and we are,” said Danson, noting the tournament has 171 total players this year compared to last year’s 168, and 149 in 2014. “It’s a slightly bigger draw in overall numbers, but some of the draws that we really were excited about went way up.”

The men’s open draw, for instance, has a 12-player bracket this year that includes defending champion and top seed Austin Kische — up from eight players a year ago. And the women’s open singles bracket is nine players strong, including defending champion and No. 1 seed McKenzie Hilmer, a three-time Big Al’s winner. Only five players signed up for the women’s open singles bracket last year, and there weren’t enough sign-ups to hold a women’s open singles tourney in 2014.

“We got a big influx of youth,” Danson said of the jump in open singles players. “People from 19 to 22, current college players. Last year we had a few of them come up from like Redding and I think Chico, and apparently they told their friends about us because they’re bringing up a lot more young folks. That’s great, because we’ve got our local young people — a couple high schoolers that are playing this year — and then we have some recent graduates from around the local area. And we have our three veterans that are in their 30s and 40s that are competing.”

Last year, Kische, who hails from Yreka, beat 2014 champion and top seed John Dix in the semis and No. 2 seed Michael Gooding in the final to capture the men’s open singles title. The straight set victory earned him the first-place pottery trophy — a Big Al’s tradition — and the top seed this year.

As the No. 1 seed, Kische was one of four players awarded a first-round bye, along with the second-seeded Dix and the third-seeded Gooding. Adam Stamper of Ashland and Mitchell Steadman of Jacksonville will square off Friday morning at Hunter Park for the right to face Kische in the quarterfinals Saturday morning. On the other side of the bracket, Dix of Ashland will face either Mischa Kirby, a recent Ashland High graduate, or Zachary Carter of Roseburg in another quarterfinal match Saturday at Hunter Park.

The men’s open singles final is scheduled to be played at 8 a.m. Sunday at Hunter Park.

The women’s open singles bracket has only two players who are seeded — Hilmer and 2015 Ashland High graduate Ashley Knecht, who recently completed her freshman season at Portland State University.

Hilmer’s quest for a fourth Big Al’s singles title begins Friday morning, when she’s set to take on Elizabeth Kelley of Redding, Calif., at Hunter Park.

No. 2-seeded Knecht will face Adele Duval of Dallas, Texas, in another quarterfinal match Friday, with the winner slated to play AHS alum Vika O’Brien, Kali Curtis of Medford or Isabelle Bahr of Redding in Saturday’s semifinal round.

O’Brien, who won three state doubles championships at AHS, and Knecht also have teamed up as the No. 1-seeded team in the women’s open doubles bracket. On the other side of that five-team bracket is the second-seeded team of Duval and Jayci Kelley.

In the men’s open doubles bracket, former and current AHS standouts have teamed up to form the No. 1-seeded team. Evan Schleining, who graduated from Ashland High in 2005, will partner with AHS junior-to-be Rox Rogers, who teamed up with Kai Weston to claim the Class 5A boys doubles state championship in May. They’ll play Mitchell Steadman of Jacksonville and Kylar Tosh of Medford in the semifinals of the five-team bracket Saturday morning.

The No. 2 seed in the men’s open doubles bracket consists of Gooding and Peter Warren of Ashland. Schleining and his 2015 partner, Christopher Atzet, beat Gooding and Warren in last year’s men’s open doubles final.

Matches will be played at Hunter Park, Lithia Park, the Ashland Hills Hotel, Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club and, for the first time ever, Helman Elementary School, whose two courts have recently been resurfaced. Danson said it takes about 24 volunteers to run the tournament, doing everything from manning water stations to recording results on the giant posterboard brackets that are set up at Hunter Park.

The weather forecast calls for highs of 81 Friday, 80 Saturday and 78 Sunday, which is mild compared to last year, when temperatures soared into the mid-90s on the final day.

“It’s actually not supposed to be that hot,” Danson said. “We are crossing our fingers that that (forecast) is going to stay the same. But we will have a hospitality booth with water and Gatorade right outside the (Hunter Park) courts for players and fans.”

Extreme heat has made afternoon matches difficult, which is the main reason why Big Al’s organizers are considering moving the tournament to September.

“We’re going to kind of send out a feeler to all the players who play this year and see how many we would lose or gain,” Danson said. “A lot of local people don’t play just because it’s so hot. It’s in consideration anyway.”

Danson added that for the first time ever Big Al’s results will be posted on the tournament’s website immediately after they’re reported to organizers. To view the results, go to usta.com, enter 600021016 into the search field on the right then click on Big Al’s to enter the tournament’s USTA page.

Central Point's Tanner Borg, shown returning a volley during last year's tournament, will once again partner with his father, Hal Borg, in men's doubles. PHOTO BY LARRY STAUTH, JR.