by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Just when it appeared that injuries were the only way Elk River could be denied a state tennis championship, freaky things started happening.
“Last Friday, we thought the roof was caving in,” said coach Randy Ronning on Tuesday, greatly relieved after the Elks got past Maple Grove 5-2 in first round of Class AA at the University of Minnesota.
The top-ranked Elks (29-0) face Mahtomedi in the semifinals on Wednesday at 10 a.m., the winner advancing to the finals at 4 p.m. against Wayzata or Eagan.
Last Friday, four days before state, the Elks No. 2 singles player, Sam Gearou, woke up with a pinched nerve in his shoulder, probably from sleeping on it wrong, and by the time he’d practiced for 20 minutes it was swollen and throbbing.
“Sam came to me and said he was in a lot of pain,” said Ronning, “and this is a kid who NEVER complains about anything. I texted both parents and couldn’t get hold of them so I took Sam to the doctor myself.”
And Gearou was the second Elk to go to the doctor on Friday. Dylan Berger, unbeaten at No. 2 doubles with Jesse Bragg, had burned his right hand in the thumb area in a science class experiment on his last day of school.
“That happened the same day and it was looking like Dylan might not be able to play,” said the coach.
Along with the two odd injuries came news of a death affecting another player.
“Steve Delain got the message that his grandfather had died,” said Ronning, referring to a No. 3 singles player, “and he would miss Monday’s practice and the banquet for the funeral.”
Sam Gearou had recovered sufficiently enough to beat Charlie Adkins 6-3, 6-2 at No. 2 singles Tuesday. Berger, with blisters and peeling skin around the heel of his thumb, suffered his first loss of the season although he and Bragg played well against formidable duo of Trevor Kleinschay and Derick Marvin, who won 7-6 (1), 6-4. Delain and Nathan Chanthamontry fell behind 4-1 but stormed back to beat Jacob Endres and Dylan Steman 6-4, 6-4.
“Sam got to practice enough to get ready,” the coach reflected. “Dylan worked a lot of that hand and probably played in some pain although he won’t admit it. Steve looked pretty good for someone who had just been to a funeral.”
The Elks had beaten the No. 10 Crimson 5-2 in the second match of the season. The Crimson altered their lineup after that match and must have found the right combo. They are 19-3-4 after losing again to the Elks and beating St. Cloud Tech 6-1 in the consolation bracket. In Section 5AA they ended Mounds View’s 10-year dynasty 4-3.
The Elks’ other three wins came in decisive straight sets – from Josh Gearou and Ryan Ness at one and three singles, and Mitchel Brandell and Matt Odegard at one doubles.
“They came in expecting to win, and take care of business,” noted Brandell about the Crimson. “They’re a great team. Look at two-doubles, where we haven’t lost all year … but as long as we get four points, I’m happy.”
Josh Chuba lost a close two-setter to Rory Calabria in a dynamic No. 4 singles match.
“It looked like two number ones playing, on a lot of other teams,” said Ronning.
Brandell, in his sixth state tournament, is well aware that this one is different, with his team the clear favorite. Asked what coaches have telling them about that situation, he said, “Stay on top of things, focus, don’t let anything go to your head. But we are definitely confident.”
Berger, who’ll deliver ERHS’s valedictory address at graduation on Friday and hopes to do so as a state champion, acknowledged that it’s hard not to be confident.
“We saw the end of the first match, and then the second match, and saw the outcomes, and we realize, we’ve beaten all these teams,” said Berger. “But we know we have to keep playing well.”
Indeed, the Elks have vanquished each of the other remaining semifinalists – Mahtomedi 4-0 in a rain-shortened match, Wayzata 6-1 and Eagan 5-2, all in April.
“But we have to show that we can do it here,” said Ronning. “You never know how you’ll perform when you’re the favorites. We’ve always been either a team with just a chance to win, or an underdog.”
He reminded his team, at the end of the post-match huddle, that they have the opportunity to become the first Elk team to win in the semifinal round. Four previous teams who got that far lost, in 2001, 2006, 2008 and 2001.
Berger, incidentally, grinned sheepishly at the irony of the smartest kid in class burning his shooting hand in a routine science project just four days before the state tournament.
“This never happened before. I have seen that experiment a hundred times and it’s super easy, ” he said, shaking his head. “The doctor told me the swelling will go down and if you can hold the racket, you can play.”
This marked the first time in 24 state tournament matches that the Elks have played a conference rival.
“We had some fun tennis today,” said J.C. Lippold, the Crimson coach. “It was great to go ahead to state and meet old friends here. Our guys were very excited to play another couple of weeks. We are young, with just four seniors among 72 in our program and three of the top ten, so we are hoping this will be the first of many.”
Ronning and the Elks got a writeup in the Star-Tribune on Tuesday, mentioning how Ronning joined the program as an assistant in 1992 and formulated some long-range goals for the then-lagging program with another Elk coach, Curt Johnson. Among those goals, more like a pipe dream, was to win a state championship within 20 years. Well, as the Strib pointed out, this happens to be the 20th year.
Elk River 5, Maple Grove 2
(1) Josh Gearou, ER, def. Zachary Adkins 6-3, 6-0
(2) Sam Gearou, ER, def. Charlie Adkins 6-3, 6-2.
(3) Ryan Ness, ER, def. Sam Hochberger 6-3, 6-3.
(4) Rory Calabria, MG, def. Josh Chuba 6-2, 7-6 (6).
(1) Mitchel Brandell-Matt Odegard, ER, def. Andrew Nagel-Samuel Endres 6-2, 6-3
(2) Trevor Kleineschay-Derrick Marvin, MG, def. Dylan Berger-Jesse Bragg 7-6 (1), 6-4
(3) Nathan Chanthamontry-Steven Delain, ER, def. Jacob Endres- Dylan Steman 6-4, 6-4
STATE CLASS AA TENNIS
Wayzata 4, Eden Prairie 3
Eagan 4, Rochester Mayo 3
Elk River 5, Maple Grove 2
Mahtomedi 5, St. Cloud Tech 2
Rochester Mayo 5, Eden Prairie 2
Maple Grove 6, St. Cloud Tech 1
Wayzata vs. Eagan, 8 a.m.
Elk River vs. Mahtomedi, 10 a.m.
Rochester Mayo vs. Maple Grove, noon
Semifinal losers, 2 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 4 p.m.