Mexico’s McKeown covers distance to all-state honors

By Jeremy Jacob, Sports Editor
Posted 6/7/23

By the time Mexico junior Brendan McKeown made it to the state tournament on May 19, he had covered much distance.

Mexico’s No. 1 player had played many matches before his trip to the …

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Mexico’s McKeown covers distance to all-state honors


By the time Mexico junior Brendan McKeown made it to the state tournament on May 19, he had covered much distance.

Mexico’s No. 1 player had played many matches before his trip to the Class 1 individual state singles tournament at Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield. McKeown became the first Mexico boys player to earn a state medal — and maybe first ever as head coach Tony Senor plans to research that topic in the summer — by finishing seventh in the competition.

Mexico hadn’t seen a boys state qualifier since 2015, but McKeown’s exposure to tennis began much sooner than that. McKeown said he started playing with his father at five years old but didn’t begin playing competitively until about the age of 12. As a Bulldog, he has earned all-conference honors and all-district honors three years, including this year when he finished first in the North Central Missouri Conference and in the individual district tournament.

“The best part is I have medals in things that show how hard I’ve worked over the year,” McKeown said. “The all-conference and all-districts I have gotten in previous years, but this year, we got that third medal, which is the most important one.”

McKeown said a match can simply be determined by who has more in the tank or more fight at the end of marathon affairs that can last from an hour and a half to more than two hours. He had to play several of those matches on his road to state this year, including his sectional match and a couple of his state matches.

Senor said the bigger gas tank and mental toughness McKeown has gained after years of play helped him in the more than two hour marathon he had with a familiar conference foe in Kirksville’s Gavin Pike at sectionals. McKeown lost the first set and then took the next two sets via tiebreakers — 7-6 with a 7-2 tiebreaker in the second set and a 10-5 ultimate third set tiebreaker — in the latest chapter against an opponent that pushes McKeown to his limit. 

“Some people are really fast and know how to hit the ball every time,” McKeown said. “They don’t always make you run for it, but they always hit it back. The longer they can keep the point alive, the better chance they have and the more mistakes it gives you a chance to make. Those points can just last forever and wear you down. After that match, I was absolutely exhausted.”

McKeown definitely earned his spot in the state singles bracket but had those types of opponents waiting for him, starting with the tournament’s first day. He defeated two players from Monett, No. 2 Heisman Welch in two sets in his first match and his third match against the school’s No. 1 Ethan Kutz in two sets with a 7-3 tiebreaker to determine the first set’s outcome. 

“That level of competition (from Pike) is what we saw at the state tournament, over and over and over again, even in the first round,” Senor said. “We still had to have that kind of endurance and mental toughness.”

“He could run and could hit the ball back every time, but I knew if I made him run enough and if I made him struggle enough, he wouldn’t hit the ball back every time,” McKeown said. “Making him struggle, not necessarily blow him away, was a big part of why I was able to get through that one.”

A regulation tennis court is listed as 78 feet long and 27 feet wide for singles play, but a tennis player can run for miles in any match, depending on the length of the match and the type of opponent. McKeown has covered many miles in his career but needed to do the same mentally to survive as long as he did. 

“That (first match) was the most nervous I’ve ever seen Brendan before a match and during a match too,” Senor said. “Then he started calming down, he let the nerves go away and he just started playing.”

“Seeing this big facility with all these tennis experts essentially watching on, crazy fans watching on and going so far for this, I was nervous in a way,” McKeown said. “Once I got into the match and I started thinking about the actual match rather than everything around the match, I just got into my element and was able to block out the thoughts that I had before.”

McKeown said it is easy to get worn down mentally if you allow the situation to do so. He was swept in the second match against Savannah’s Cole Horton while only reaching deuce once in the about 45-minute match, but that same kid finished as the state runner-up and even managed to win some games from state champion Whitfield’s Daniel Radke, who won his second straight state title.

Senor said Horton is the “complete package” with serving and the speed he displays with forehand and backhand shots and the “best player I have ever coached against in any sport,” and McKeown tried everything he could but just couldn’t match that level. So, Senor said McKeown just needed to stay hydrated and loose in the two and half hours before his third match, where he was able to shine mentally in a match with podium implications, prior to playing Kutz following his two and a half hour contest.

“I thought of it more as like a hurdle I had to get over rather than having it down to whether or not I would make it over,” McKeown said. “I thought of it as it was a matter of time before I get over. He had really good shots on him and he had a good serve also. I know so much of the game mentally because I have been in so many of these situations. When he loses the first set on such a close level (on a tiebreaker), in the second set, he just never really got going.”

McKeown called it a “huge relief” when he officially earned the all-state honor as he tried his best to control the match in the second set. The second day brought more tough competition in Clayton’s Spencer Pompian, who eventually finished fifth after defeating McKeown 2-6, 4-6.

Even in that loss against an opponent from a school with five state Final Fours in six years, McKeown mounted a bit of a comeback that just couldn’t be fully realized. Senor said McKeown has been Mexico’s No. 1 player for two years and jumped six ranks to No. 4 on the team in his freshman year. He said McKeown, though, defeated the team’s No. 1 in the playoffs “pretty handily,” which can be explained by his skill.

“He’s a two-sport athlete as he plays soccer as well,” Senor said. “That helps a lot with footwork, eye-hand coordination, being strategic and being where you need to be on the court and on the field.”

McKeown and Senor both said returning to state is obviously the goal for next year but both acknowledged the tough competition the Bulldogs have had to play helped make history this year. Missouri Military Academy was in Class 1 and in Mexico’s district until this year when MMA was moved up to Class 2. The Colonels were one team victory away from advancing to their second straight Final Four, but skilled players like them have presented the challenge McKeown has needed.

“That competition in the past has helped Brendan become a better player,” Senor said. “Without that competition, I don’t think we’d be all-state this season.”

“Every match you lose is an opportunity to learn,” McKeown said. “All of those good players that push you give you an opportunity to rethink strategy, think about the future and think about when you make it state when you’re going to play against players that hard all the time.”


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