How this senior could become Rockford's first state tennis champ in 57 years

·5 min read
Rockford Christian senior Finley Buelte is seeded No. 2 in the Class 1A state boys tennis tournament. The only area state tennis champ is Rockford West's Dan Wikse 57 years ago.
Rockford Christian senior Finley Buelte is seeded No. 2 in the Class 1A state boys tennis tournament. The only area state tennis champ is Rockford West's Dan Wikse 57 years ago.

Finley Buelte gets a do-over.

Last year’s No. 2 seed in the Class 1A boys tennis tournament is also this year’s No. 2 seed. But, even with an extra year of experience, this year may be even tougher for the Rockford Christian senior in his quest to become Rockford’s first state tennis champion since 1965.

“The competition,” Buelte said, “is much deeper than it was last year.”

That starts with star freshman Nicholas Patrick of Rock Island Alleman, the No. 1 seed who carries a Universal Tennis Rating of 11. Buelte has a UTR of 10.2. A UTR measures a player’s skill regardless of age, gender, pro or amateur from 1.00 to 16.50, based on match results. Novak Djokovic is a 16.15, the top college player 14.22, the top women player in the world is 13.38 and the best high schooler in the nation is 13.08.

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“I have never seen (Patrick) play; I don’t even know if he’s 5-4 or 6-1, but obviously the UTR is a good indication of where someone is,” said Rob Buelte, Rockford Christian’s coach and Finley’s father. “But on any given day, somebody a point below — even two points below — can beat you if they are having a great day and you are off a little bit.”

Finley Buelte finished sixth in the state as a junior, becoming one of only nine Rockford-area boys in history to win a state medal in singles. Only one of those six players graduated. But defending state champ Max Braun of Champaign Centennial is playing doubles with his brother this year. Braun beat Buelte 6-3, 6-1 in the quarterfinals last year.

“At first I was excited that Max Braun wasn’t playing singles,” Finley said, “but then I realized I want the competition. I want to be able to play tougher opponents, to have a chance to play him again and get redemption.”

He’ll get plenty of other chances for that.

Buelte is seeded to play No. 5-8 seed Luke Welker of Burlington Central in the quarterfinals, the player he lost to in a super-tiebreaker in last year’s fifth-place match after splitting the first two sets. The two used to be in the same practice group and have drilled against each other frequently, but played each other in a match only three times. Welker won each time, at age 10, age 15 and last year.

“It’s hard to tell who’s better,” Buelte said. “We practice a lot together because we go to the same groups and we both hit balls kind of the same way. It will be a very tough match.”

The only 1A state medalist who graduated last year was Chicago Latin’s Sujan Garapati. But his two younger brothers, Kiran and Akshay, teamed to win the state doubles title last year and are both in the singles draw this year.

“I’ve known both Garapati brothers for a long time,” Buelte said. “They are going to be tough opponents.”

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Buelte should also be tough to beat. A month after last year’s state tourney, he beat runner-up Peter Adams Agresti of Evanston Beacon Academy in a summer match. Agresti is a 3-4 seed this year.

Buelte knows he has the game to make another long state run. But so do many other players.

“It’s exciting, but nerve-wracking, both as a coach and a father,” said Rob Buelte, who finished fourth in the state in doubles for Guilford under the old one-class system in 1983. “He’s stronger physically and his game has improved a lot. Whether that translates to a big event, that’s what he’s got to prove.”

Finley Buelte is trying not to think about joining West’s Dan Wikse as Rockford’s only state tennis champ.

“I try to block it out,” he said. “That is a lot to look up to. There are a lot of great players in Rockford’s past. I will try my best, but there is a lot of great competition.”

Buelte has signed with NCAA Division III DePauw, where he will major in chemistry and be on a pre-med track. “They have a 90-something percent med school acceptance rate; that was one of the huge things in me deciding,” he said.

Buelte and his private coach, Branden Metzler, a former NCAA Division III runner-up and Auburn NIC-10 star, say his biggest key is getting ahead early.

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“I am always getting off to rough starts,” Finely Buelte said. “I have to focus on getting in a rhythm and hitting the ball in before I start going for winners.

“My serve is also a huge part. As long as that is going, I should be set to hold serve a lot. And when I get an opportunity, a slow or high ball, I’ve got to attack that thing and put it away when I’ve got the chance.

“But it’s always those starts for me.”

Good starts this week could lead to one of the best career endings of any player in Rockford history.

Matt Trowbridge is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at mtrowbridge@rrstar.com and follow him on Twitter at @MattTrowbridge. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com.

Rockford-area boys state tennis medalists

Player, School, Place, Year

Julian Brueninbg, West, 5th, 1953

Julian Bruening, West, 5th, 1954

Dick Johnson, Auburn, 5th, 1962

Dan Wikse, West, 5th, 1964

Dan Wikse, West, 1st, 1965

John Torrence, West, 5th, 1972

Tracy Fenelon, Guilford, 2nd, 1978

Tracy Fenelon, Guilford, 2nd, 1979

Derek Rasheed, Freeport, 4th, 1996

Kevin Park, Guilford, 2nd, 1996

Anderson Park, Belvidere North, 2nd, 2017 (1A)

Finley Buelte, Rockford Christian, 6th in 2021 (1A)

This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Rockford Christian's Finley Buelte No. 2 seed in Class 1A state tennis