by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The two eighth-graders at the top of the Elk River-Zimmerman tennis lineup is what the Star-Tribune scribe focused upon when interviewing Elk coach Randy Ronning after the Elks beat Eastview 5-2 Tuesday in the first round of the state tournament.
“We have had real good teams for the last 11 years, but never one so young at the top spots,” acknowledged Ronning. He added: “They are total team players, and just the nicest kids. Very respectful to not only opponents but their parents, other adults, coaches, and teammates.”
Josh Gearou and Sam Gearou cruised at one and two singles, as did juniors Mitchel Brandell and Ryan Ness at three and four singles, all straight-set winners at the U of M’s Baseline Center.
All three doubles matches went to tiebreakers, with ERZ picking up a win at No. 2 from Dylan Berger and Jesse Bragg.
The No. 7 ranked Elks (24-2) now face No. 3 Rochester Mayo, a 5-2 winner over No. 6 Eden Prairie, at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
Asked what the differences are between the twins, Ronning said, “One’s left-handed (Josh) and one’s right-handed. That’s about where it ends. They are so very similar.”
Josh got his 30th win and Sam his 28th, while Brandell notched his 31st and Ness his 30th, showing how formidable the Elks singles lineup can be.
Ronning said he went with his strongest singles lineup when he saw that all three of Eastview’s possible lineups (submitted prior to the tournament) were the same, figuring the Elks could win at least three if they played well. He was most concerned about No. 1, but Josh cruised 6-1, 6-4 over Will Bernat.
“I was consistent, and he made too many mistakes,” commented Josh.
The Wildcats have two brothers, also, in singles, at 3 and 4 in Brandon and Tommy Vang.
“We knew the Vangs were very good,” said Ronning. “But Ryan is as good a No. 4 as there is in the state, and we felt good about our chances with with Mitchel and Ryan at three and four. We thought we had an advantage with Sam, and that one (singles) would be dead even. But Josh went out and won the first set 6-1 and there were some really long games in there that he just kept winning.”
The other semifinal has No.5 Wayzata facing No. 1 Mahtomedi at 10 a.m. Wayzata edged No. 2 ranked Mounds View 4-3 and Mahtomedi stopped unranked Forest Lake 5-2.
The semifinal losers will compete for third place at 2 p.m. and the winners will duel for the state crown at 4 p.m.
This is regarded as a wide-open field, unlike many of Elk River’s previous seven trips when Edina was an overwhelming favorite. Edina has missed the last two state tournaments.
“We feel if we play well, we’ve got a good chance against any of them,” said Ronning. “Sometimes you play better when you’re a younger team, because you don’t have so much pressure on you as a senior team.”
The lone senior is Zak Steichen, who, at No. 1 doubles with Josh Chuba, lost in straight sets, the second one going to tiebreaker.
“We’ve got a lot of juniors, too,” said Steichen, “so we kind of forget about how old you are and just go play tennis. It’s hard to believe (Josh and Sam) are junior high kids.”
About No. 10 ranked Eastview, Steichen said, “We were pretty positive about our chances … but we knew it would be close.”
When the Elks face Mayo, there will be an interesting side story as the Spartans have a female in their lineup, seventh-grade prodigy Ingrid Neel, who won her 2-singles match against Eden Prairie.
“She is phenomenal. She doesn’t play girls; she doesn’t think it’s worth it,” said Ronning. “She has played all over Europe and around the world … She plays boys because she thought the boys would be worth it (competitively).”
Ronning added that he’s not crazy about a girl playing with boys, because if it caught on, the girls game would be hurt. But in the semifinals she’s not an issue, she’s just another player his team has to beat. She normally plays No. 3 singles, so Brandell might be the one facing her.
Elk River 5, Eastview 2
Elk River-Zimmerman 5, Eastview 2
(1) Joshua Gearou, ERZ, def. Will Biernat, E, 6-1, 6-4
(2) Samuel Gearou, ERZ, def. Nishaan Pal, E, 6-3, 6-2
(3) Mitchel Brandell, ER, def. Brandon Vang, E, 7-5, 6-0
(4) Ryan Ness, ERZ, def. Tommy Vang, E, 6-1, 6-2.
(1) Aaron Larson & Sam Cychosz, E, def. Joshua Chuba & Zachary Steichen, ER, 6-2, 7-6 (7-2)
(2) Dylan Berger & Jesse Bragg, ERZ, def. Daniel Falkenberg & Rachit Kshetrapal, E, 6-7 (4-7), 7-5, (10-8)
(3) Daniel Spika & Matthew Haugdahl, E, def. Nathan Chanthamontry & Logann Burns, ER, 6-0, 6-7 (4-7), (10-6).