Connor Larson was a standout on the basketball and tennis courts for the Bison the past four years. While basketball was the favorite sport for the 2011 McCook High School graduate, Larson's tennis talents won out.
The two-time Class B state No. 1 singles tennis champion has decided to accept an offer to join the University of Nebraska-Omaha men's tennis program starting next fall.
"They're on the rise right now," Larson said. "I think they're getting better and better every year. Playing better competition, that will be good, because everybody will improve. I'm looking forward to that. It's not like we'll have any easy matches, so we'll have to work hard wherever we go play."
Larson, listed as a 5-10 guard, was a key player on the Bison basketball team during his prep career. He was recruited by several schools for basketball, including McCook Community College, Hastings College, Doane and Ottawa (Kansas), plus tennis was also an option at Hastings and Doane and the University of Nebraska-Kearney. With all things considered, Connor said Omaha seemed like the best fit.
"It just felt right. We went on a college visit there. I love the campus," he said. "I met three or guys on the team, I liked all of them. I like big cities. I kind of, like, want to get out there and be in a bigger city. Just everything felt right at Omaha, so I felt like that's where I needed to go, so I made my decision."
Basketball? Tennis? Both? A tough choice for the two-sport Bison star.
"It was so hard to make my decision, because it's so hard to let basketball go," he said. "I've been playing since I can remember. But I see myself having more success in tennis, so I might as well go where I can have the most success. I thought about playing both basketball and tennis at a smaller NAIA school. But I figured if I was going to go play a college sport, I might as well put all my time in one sport so I can be better at that sport, than average at both of them.
"It's tough to watch basketball go. It's been my favorite sport ever since I was little. Tennis is close behind. I liked basketball a little more. But I'm excited to play tennis in college."
Stellar prep tennis career
UNO should be excited to have won Larson's tennis talents for the next four years. Connor went unbeaten in No. 1 singles his junior and senior seasons, winning consecutive state championships. Larson also advanced to the Class B No. 1 singles state finals his sophomore year with a perfect record, before he lost to Michael Sambol of Omaha Skutt Catholic. Larson also reached the No. 1 singles state finals as a freshman, only to lose to top seed Josh Raymond of Elkhorn High.
That's two Class B state titles, two runner-up finishes at state, and a 134-7 overall record in four years of competition at No. 1 singles. Larson lost just five sets in three state meet matches last fall. McCook High School tennis coach Matt Wiemers said the school has not kept accurate records through the years, but he is sure Connor is McCook's first two-time state champ with the best overall match record in Bison tennis history.
"He's had a great four-year career, an amazing senior year," Wiemers said. "He just played lights-out his senior year. He was quite a player. He did a lot of nice things on the court. He earned a lot of awards, got a lot of respect from other players and other coaches around the state."
Connor is the son of Greg and Cindy Larson of McCook. He was never really challenged during his senior season, and perhaps his toughest opponent was his father.
"Connor is going to get so much better because he is going to go to a Division I school in Omaha, and will hit with consistently hard-hitting players, and it's going to make him that much better," Wiemers said. "He didn't have that here. His best competition was hitting with his dad. Greg did a great job of getting Connor where he's at. Connor's a talent, but Greg put a lot of time in helping Connor get to that level."
Larson honed his tennis skills as a youngster with regular trips to Omaha to face the best youth players in the state.
"I'm excited to go (to UNO) and play good people day-in and day-out, like back in the day when I went to Omaha every weekend," Connor said. "Thanks to my parents for putting in all that time and money for me. Because I would not be anywhere near where I am today if I wouldn't have done that. It's just playing against top competition, that's the only way you're going to get better."
Coach Wiemers thinks Larson will adapt well to Division I college tennis, perhaps with a little motivation from the UNO coaches.
"If the coach gives Connor a challenge, he will do everything he can to accept that challenge and overcome the challenge," Wiemers said. "Connor is a special kind of player. You can say, 'Connor, you can't do this,' and he'll go out and prove you wrong. It doesn't matter what it is, he will prove you wrong.
'Connor will do fine. It will be an adjustment. He's been the big fish in the small pond here in McCook for the last four years, but now he's going to go be kind of the small fish in the big pond in college. He'll be OK. His first year, he just needs to get some experience and get used to the change of pace of the game, because it will be a lot quicker. For him it won't be that big of an adjustment because Connor can play pretty quick, the way he hits the ball. He has a great opportunity to do some great things in Omaha."
UNO head coach Mike Saniuk will begin his second year heading the Mavericks' program. He spent two years as an UNO assistant, following standout tennis careers at Omaha Gross Catholic High School and the University of Nebraska-Kearney.
Larson said his new coach said Connor will push for a spot on the UNO varsity roster next season. Larson said the Mavs are bringing in a junior college transfer and another player from a school that dropped its tennis program.
"We're getting more top competitors," he said. "It should be a battle for varsity. It will be fun."
Larson said he has not yet decided on a college major. He also hasn't really decided on a career path, but teaching and coaching might be on that list.
"I haven't really thought too seriously about anything yet," Connor said. "I guess it's still hard for me to picture that I'm going to college and will be out in the real world. I'm just glad I finally decided where I'm going to college. Got the first step down."
The real world
Larson said he's getting a little taste of the real world this summer. A day after this interview last week, Larson was scheduled to report to work at 6 a.m. on the highway construction flag crew working west of McCook.
"Real early," Connor said when asked when he was starting the next challenge on his list.