by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Elk River-Ziimmerman’s 2011 tennis season has ended up another very strong one — the Elks officially placed fourth place in the state — but wasn’t the breakthrough they aspire to.
Maybe that’ll come next year.
The Elks reached state semifinals with a 5-2 win over Eastview on Tuesday, then were scuttled by Rochester Mayo 5-2 in the semifinals and by Mahtomedi 5-2 in the third-place match, both Wednesday.
Mayo captured the championship 4-3 over Wayzata.
“We had an exciting day and we played about like I thought we would,” said Elk coach Randy Ronning.” It was disappointing at the end of the day to see how many close ones we lost, all the 6-4’s and 7-5’s. We have to get better at finishing those out.”
The Elks were at least gratified that it took both Mayo and Mahtomedi two hours to secure the fourth point.
“That shows that you’re really batting,” Ronning said.
With nine of 10 starters back from a 24-4 team, including two eighth-graders at the top two spots, the Elks expect to be in contention again in 2012.
“We are recognized now as a top-five program in the state, an elite program,” said Ronning, “but nobody will recognize us as a great team until we win a state title. That’s going to be the goal of this team next year.”
In eight state trips, the Elks have won in the first round four times, and each time lost the next two, to finish fourth.
That finally step takes some extra effort year-round.
“Every school here today as more kids than us who play summer tournaments,” Ronning observed. “We have five kids who do, but they all have 10. This should be motivation for the kids to do that. You win state championships in the off-season. This is just where you collect the rewards.”
Mayo singles — including the girl — too strong
The Elks usually dominate singles, but Mayo turned the tables on them as Josh and Sam Gearou and Mitchel Brandell all lost against the Spartans, with Ryan Ness winning a match that had a goofy ending. The other Elk point came from Zak Steichen and Josh Chuba at No. 1 doubles.
Against Mahtomedi, Brandell and Ness won at 3-4 singles. The Elks were down 3-2 with No. 2 and No. 3 doubles both in the third set but both lost.
Most notable singles loss was by Brandell, who faced the first girl to play in a state boys tournament, seventh-grader Ingrid Neel of Mayo at No. 3, and got beat by the tiny prodigy 6-4, 6-4. Neel won all three of her matches at state and finished with about 25 wins against four losses.
Brandell, who is 32-3 for the season and won his other two matches at state, gave Neel her due — “She is very consistent, she hits a nice flat ball, and she is really quick.”
But he wasn’t crazy about playing her.
“Horrifying. Ridiculous,” he said, about the experience. “She should not be playing against boys. She is good, but she has not rolled through the girls yet.”
The 4-foot-11, 85-pound Neel plays a national and international schedule and elected skip high school girls tennis last fall because “I knew there wouldn’t be much competition until the state tournament, and I didn’t want to play (a whole season) for one tournament.”
She stuck to playing with the two clubs in Rochester to which she belongs. She knows the boys on the Mayo varsity there, and at her mother’s suggestion, approached Spartan coach Jeff Demaray about joining the boys. He said sure.
Asked if any of the boys had a problem with that, Neel grinned and showed Mayo-green braces. “Not that they have told me about,” she said.
Ronning was troubled by Neel’s presence, too.
“That opens a can of worms that never should have been opened. I am so against her playing boys tennis,” said Ronning. “Now every school that has girls tennis could face the same thing. We’ve had girls who could play boys varsity.
“I don’t put her down, or Mayo, for doing it, that is for them to decide, but I don’t like what it does to the sport. It won’t hurt boys tennis, but it would hurt girls tennis.”
Elks pick up two points
In doubles, Steichen and Chuba lost their first set but won the last two.
“We started getting our first serves in, and hitting our groundstrokes better,” said Chuba.
Ness dropped the first set, won the second and led 4-2 in the third — and then his opponent, Eric Rustad, decided to quit, after hearing that his team had just gotten its fourth point.
“He said they didn’t need the point anyway,” said Ness, “but I had just broken his serve and it looked like I was going to win, too. I thought it showed poor sportsmanship.”
Ness, a junior, won all three of his matches at state, all No. 4 singles.