by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
There are winnable matches at the state tennis tournament and there are yeah-dream-on matches at the state tournament.
Elk River got a winnable one by luck of the draw and made the best of its opportunity beating Mahtomedi 5-2 in the first round of Class AA on Tuesday at the University of Minnesota.
The Elks (22-4) will now face the Edina Hornets, otherwise known as Mount Everest, at 8 a.m. Wednesday in the semifinals. Top-ranked Edina, which has won 14 consecutive state titles, won 7-0 Tuesday over a No. 2 ranked Mounds View team that’s a lot better than Elk River.
But assuming the Elks don’t pull the upset of the ages, they will likely play Brainerd, another winnable match, for third place. Brainerd faces No. 3 Rochester Mayo. In this unseeded tournament, the four powerhouses had to play each other, and the four longshots got to play each other, in the first round.
Against Mahtomedi (13-5-1), a match that could truly go either way, with all seven points hard-fought, the Elks prevailed in two sets at No. 1 singles with Michaela Schulz, No. 2 singles with Camille Kraljic, No. 4 singles with Jen Koehler, and No. 1 doubles with Taylor Lussier-Flesher and Katie O’Connell, while Ali May Kuebelbeck at No. 3 singles came back from a first-set loss to win the second set in overtime, then the third set.
Coach LeRoyce Chapman, in her first state tourney match at the helm, was thrilled and proud.
“Jen was running down every single ball, never giving up on a ball. Ali May had a huge comeback and was playing so smart, we were so proud of her. And Camille and Michaela and first doubles took care of business.”
Kelsey Rausch and Kathi Ophsahl at No. 3 and Hadley Purdy and Becca O’Connell at No. 2 also got in a few licks before falling.
About playing Edina, Chapman said, “They are an amazing team and we are definitely looking forward to playing against the best.”
“We are very excited to play them,” echoed senior co-captain Kraljic, who’s faced Edina previously at the Hornets tournament last year and in the state finals two years ago.
Kraljic ground out a 6-4, 6-3 win over Spencer Comfort for the third point.
“She had a very good inside out forehand,” said Kraljic. “I had to keep the pace up, but mix up my shots.”
Kraljic was behind 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 in the second set but finished strong, winning the last four games.
Lussier-Flesher and O’Connell, seniors who’ve been paired for two years, are playing their best tennis at the end of their prep careers — at sectionals and state. So far they are 9-0 together in post-season counting individual and duals. They’ll be in state doubles starting Thursday.
“We are definitely peaking at the end of the year,” said Lussier-Flesher. “We keep finding ways to work together and communicate better.”
The honor of securing the fourth point fell on Koehler, an eighth-grader, who outlasted Madison Fernandez 6-4, 6-2, in a match with numerous long volleys that left both kids exhausted.
“I’m not going to walk for days,” puffed Koehler afterward. “The first set took forever! But then I got an adrenaline rush.”
Playing in a pivotal match at state as an eighth-grader was something she took in stride.
“I didn’t know it was the (fourth) point,” she said. “It was a lot of fun. It hasn’t really hit me yet that we’re in state. I’m still wowed by us just winning the section.”
In the other bracket, Rochester Mayo topped No. 5 Minnetonka 5-2, and Rosemount edged Brainerd 4-3 in a duel of unranked teams like the Elks vs. Zephyrs.
On Wednesday, it’ll be the Elks vs. Edina at 8 a.m. and Rosemount vs. Mayo at 10 a.m. The losers meet at 2 p.m. for third place and the winners at 4 p.m. for the championship.
Elk River 5 Mahtomedi 2
(1) Michaela Schulz, ER, def. Bailey Kent, M, 6-3, 6-2
(2) Camille Kraljic, ER, def. Spencer Comfort, M, 6-4, 6-3
(3) Ali May Kuebelbeck, ER, def. Meera Damodaran, M, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3
(4) Jennifer Koehler, ER, def. Madison Fernandez, M, 6-4, 6-2
(1) Catherine O’Connell & Taylor Lussier-Flesher, ER, def. Erin Hoffman & Laura Varberg, M, 6-4, 6-3
(2) Clare Varberg & Hannah Shands, M, def. Hadley Purdy & Rebecca O’Connell, ER, 6-3, 6-2
(3) Alissa Bartholomew & Molly Gannon, M, def. Kelsey Rausch & Katherine Opsahl, ER, 6-4, 6-3