St. Joseph has a difficult task ahead in trying to return to the Division 2 girls tennis state finals, but the Bears are ready for the challenge.

St. Joseph will compete in Friday’s regional hosted by Portage Central. In Division 3, Lakeshore and Niles are at the Three Rivers regional on Thursday, and South Haven travels to Allegan on Friday.

Local Division 4 teams will compete at Leeper Park in South Bend on Thursday. The top two teams in each regional qualify for state automatically, while others can advance if they score enough team points.

“We’re feeling really good heading in to regionals,” St. Joseph co-coach Raelyn Althoff said. “We’re playing really strong.”

St. Joseph will face a tough field which includes a pair of ranked teams in No. 9 Portage Central and No. 10 Mattawan. The Bears tied in a dual meet with Mattawan during the season.

Althoff also mentioned Battle Creek Lakeview and Zeeland East as contenders for a state berth.

“It’s definitely one of the toughest regionals in the state,” Althoff said. “Portage Central is expected to win it. It’s going to be a toss-up who comes in behind them.

“It’s just going to take us playing really strong and really aggressive across all eight flights. If we do that, we should be making it back to state.”

Ashley Ke has led the Bears with a 17-0 record at No. 1 singles, including a win over Mattawan’s Kate Novak, who defeated her in last season’s state tournament.

“If she plays her game, she’s got a great chance to make it to the finals and qualify individually even if the team doesn’t,” Althoff said.

Division 3

Lakeshore’s chances of qualifying for state took a hit when No. 1 singles player Lydia Aungst was lost for the season with a broken foot.

“We moved our entire lineup up,” Lakeshore coach Pam Porter said. “It’s definitely affected our singles lineup.”

However, Porter has been happy with how her team has handled the adversity. While the singles have shuffled, the No. 1 doubles team of Avery Adams and Michelle Brown has been strong and earned the top seed in their flight for regional.

“I do think it’s possible (to qualify),” Porter said. “We’ve been continuing to play our best down the stretch.

“We’ve been consistently improving. The kids have been working hard. We’ve seen a nice bit of growth as we’ve had a chance to play more this spring.”

Porter expects the regional to be balanced, with as many as four teams potentially qualifying. She named Marshall and Parma Western among the favorites.

Division 4

Brandywine has won three straight regionals eight of the last 11. With a 13-0 record, the Bobcats are again the favorite.

“We return quite a bit of experience from the previous year,” Brandywine coach Joe Marazita said. “We have great team chemistry. The kids are great competitors.”

Marazita see Schoolcraft as his team’s toughest competition. The Bobcats defeated the Eagles 6-2 during the season, but many of the matches were close.

“They have just as good a shot as us at coming away with the title,” Marazita said. “They’re a well-coached team and they play in a tough conference.”

Marazita also expects the Lake Michigan Catholic-Bridgman co-op team to advance to state.

In its first season as a co-op, the team is 9-1, losing only to Brandywine. Catholic-Bridgman also finished just three points behind the Bobcats at the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference meet.

“I think our chances are very good that we’ll move on to state,” Catholic-Bridgman coach Kim Siglow said. “We’re hoping for first, but we think we can come in second or third.”

Siglow has worked with Bridgman coach Mark Ficks this season. The team has 10 players from Lake Michigan Catholic and eight from Bridgman.

The No. 1 doubles team contains a player from each school in Bridgman’s Priscilla Brinker and Catholic’s Addie Peters, and Siglow said she is pleased with how they have worked together.

That pairing allowed her to move her daughter, Bailey Siglow, into a strong singles lineup at No. 4. Camille Bauer plays No. 1 singles, followed by Mary Ellen Nuter and Anna LaSata.

Contact: bsanders@TheHP.com, 932-0366, @HPBenSanders