CHAMPAIGN — Two Champaign County freshmen qualified for the 2021 Class 1A boys’ tennis state tournament.
One was Centennial’s Max Braun. He won the singles state championship, the first in school history.
Champaign Central’s Ezra Bernhard was the other.
Although he didn’t bring home a state medal, Bernhard’s play in the 1A doubles draw — as well as in his sophomore campaign this spring — suggests such an achievement could be in the cards.
“If I’m able to qualify for state again, great. It’s wonderful. But I think I’m more focused on getting there first and coming to that reality when it gets to me,” Bernhard said Tuesday, three days before he and the Maroons compete in the Big 12 Conference Tournament at Bloomington.
“I’m really hoping some of our teammates make it as well,” Bernhard continued, “so we can move forward as a team instead of just one player, two players. … We can maybe have a real state run.”
Bernhard and then-senior teammate Brayden Helfer qualified for last year’s 1A state doubles quarterfinals. Bernhard also finished unbeaten at No. 2 singles en route to News-Gazette All-Area first-team status.
“It really gave me a new sense of confidence,” Bernhard said, “and let me know how to improve more in a team setting.”
With Helfer now graduated, Bernhard has advanced to Central’s No. 1 singles slot.
He boasts a 12-1 record ahead of the two-day league tournament — with the only loss coming to Braun — and he’s also compiled a 6-2 doubles mark.
“Last year it was more of growing into a leadership role,” Bernhard said. “I definitely feel like it’s somewhere that I belong, as a leader of a team, and I feel like it’s somewhere that I’m extremely comfortable.”
So what makes Bernhard such a difficult opponent?
Veteran Maroons coach Scott Davis likes to compare Bernhard with former Central standout and two-time N-G All-Area Player of the Year Austin Aten. Not becaue of their similarities, either.
“Austin Aten was the gunslinger because he wanted to destroy you and destroy the ball,” Davis said. “That’s not Ezra. Ezra is more the maestro. He’s more the conductor. … What frustrates his opponents so much is they hit a shot they think is a winner, and it comes back. They hit another shot they think is a winner, and it comes back.
“Over time, that is wearing, mentally and physically, on an opponent.”
Bernhard concurs with his coach’s description, saying he prefers to “cater my style of play toward whoever I’m playing.”
“It’s just all about adapting, most of the time, especially in high school,” Bernhard said. “That’s what’s going to win you matches: hitting more balls than the other player and not going for anything big. Just outlasting the opponent.”