by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Five days after darkness halted a crucial tennis match between Rogers and Buffalo, with the outcome hanging on the final set of the final match, the Royals and Bison convened Monday to settle the issue.
The verdict went to Rogers as seventh-grader Samantha Fitzpatrick clipped Buffalo junior Jenny Allen 6-1 at No. 4 singles at Rogers, giving the Royals a 4-3 win in the match and a 6-0 record in the Mississippi 8 Conference.
The task of securing the clincher seemed like a lot of pressure to put on a seventh-grader with specs and braces, especially having to think about it from Wednesday evening until Monday afternoon.
“She is so young, she doesn’t think too much!” said coach Debbie Conley. “She just keeps the ball in play … We tried to make it easier for her by downplaying it.”
Fitzpatrick acknowledged, “I thought about it a lot, and I was pretty nervous.” But asked if she enjoyed being center of tension, she smiled, “Yes.”
The two players had battled two hours and 45 minutes on Wednesday with Fitzpatrick winning 7-6 (8-6) and Allen winning 7-5, both hitting conservatively and accurately through endless volleys. But Fitzpatrick took control Monday, stroking with increasing authority and threading some zingers down the sidelines.
“She has played enough matches,” said Conley, “to know that if you can pass people down the line it’s lots of fun.”
The Royals actually won their first M-8 title by two games as Buffalo finished 4-2 along with St. Michael-Albertville (see standings below). But Buffalo could have tied Rogers for first place with a win.
Why did it take so long to complete this match? At first, it was because Buffalo had used a substitute coach on Wednesday when head coach Charlie Keifenheim had a family emergency. The schools’ respective athletic directors needed to confer to make sure no rules had been broken, said Rogers A.D. Paul Gustafson.
Once that was settled, they set the conclusion of the match for Friday, but had to postpone, because Buffalo’s match against Monticello on Thursday was postponed due to high winds and re-set for Friday.
Rogers had never been remotely close to a conference title before, and started this season 1-6 in non-conference matches while Conley tried to sort out the lineup. Only Danielle Anderson, a senior in her third year at No. 1 singles, was a sure thing.
“Once we got our lineup, we got going,” said Sarah Kornovitch, a senior who wound up at No. 3 singles after playing No. 1 doubles with four different partners. “We had our doubts. We were losing a lot, but to some super-good teams.”
The Royals started conference with its current lineup and won 4-3 over Monticello, a team they had never beaten before.
“When we beat Monticello, then we thought, ‘OK, we can do this,’ ” said Kornavitch, one of three senior captains along with Anderson and Bailey Kolles.
Rogers was 7-14 overall last year, but has reversed that record to 14-7 this year at the end of the regular season. They had eight of 10 starters back.
“Most of the team was back and we welcomed the new players with open arms,” said Anderson.
(The new starters are Fitzpatrick and Sydney Livingston at No. 3 doubles.)
About the lineup that clicked, Anderson reflected: “We are stacking the top three singles and we figured we could get one doubles. And then two and three doubles started to step up and so did Sam.”
Kolles, a four-year starter like Anderson, wound up at No. 2 singles. One reason for the team’s poor start was her shoulder and elbow pain from tendinitis. “It’s coming along, but it still hurts,” said Kolles.
Asked how the team turned it around this year, Kolles mentioned Conley’s insistence on doing things not as fun as playing tennis.
“We had all kinds of conditioning and drills, running five laps, doing footwork drills all that, and we hated it,” said Kolles. “But Mrs. Conley would say, ‘I really think you need this,’ so we did it, and I think that really helped us.”
The Royals all say they surprised themselves by placing first.
“We didn’t think we could be this good, no,” said Kolles. “We were 2-5 last year.”
Rogers probably won’t be able to add to their laurels in sectionals, though, as they play in Section 5AA with No. 2 ranked Mounds View, No. 7 Centennial and several other formidable squads.
Conley reported Monday night that Rogers was seeded No. 8 among 15 teams and will host No. 9 Irondale in the first round next Tuesday, with the winner facing No. 1 Mounds View.
If they can get past Irondale, Conley said, it would be fun to see what its like to face such a powerful team.
“We will pretend we’re in state,” she said.
Mississippi 8 final standings
St. Michael-Albertville 4-2
Big Lake 0-6
Rogers 4, Buffalo 3
(1) Mackinzie Rite, Buf, def Danielle Anderson 6-2, 6-3
(2) Kaylyn Skinner, Buf, def Bailey Kolles 7-5, 6-3
(3) Sarah Kornovich, ER, def Claire Parsons 6-1, 6-1
(4) Samantha Fitzpatrick, Rog, def Jennie Allen, Buf, tied 7-6 (8-6), 5-7, 6-1
(1) Rachel Dodd-Gina Peppin, Rog, def Ellie Botzek-Megan Bye 6-0, 6-0
(2) Whitney Nyholm-Ellen Koppi, Buf, def Katie Meyer-Julia Sporer 3-6, 6-1, 6-4
(3) Sydney Livingston-Kionna Koeppe, Rog, def Nattie Lubben-Claudia Botzekk 7-6 (7-3), 6-4