by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
In its season of destiny the Elk River tennis team kept its cool all year during competition, but was not able to check its emotions at the moment of ultimate triumph Wednesday.
When two Elk victories just 15 seconds apart suddenly clinched the state championship, breaking up a tense showdown against the Wayzata Trojans that would eventually end with a 5-2 win, a little bedlam broke out. All the Elks except the three still playing rushed into each other’s arms, leaping, hugging, high-fiving, punching the air.
How often do you polish off an undefeated, state championship season anyway?
“We had talked about how, if we win, we were going to wait until the last match was played before we celebrate,” said coach Randy Ronning, with a soft chuckle, 30 minutes after the match at the U of M. “But … we could not contain ourselves. That was one of those best-laid plans that didn’t work.”
Mitchel Brandell, playing in his sixth state tournament, was the most outwardly emotional of the Elks, bear-hugging everyone in sight.
“Six years, I’ve worked so hard for six years, and this is the best team we have ever had. This is the best feeling that could ever happen.”
With about 150 Elk boosters on hand — players’ parents and siblings, schoolmates, teachers, and about a dozen male and female tennis alums among them — along with a nice contingent of Trojan fans, with boisterous applause erupting frequently at various pockets of the grandstands — the Elks and Trojans battled for about an hour with the team score 1-1.
Then the Elks pulled out three-set wins on three courts in a matter of minutes, starting with Brandell and Matt Odegard at No. 1 doubles. They ventured over a couple courts to watch Josh Gearou at No. 1 finish off a come-from-behind win. Then Josh Chuba, who’d been playing No. 4 singles on the back courts, popped through the curtain with the news that he had won, too.
“Josh Chuba won first and then Josh (Gearou),” said Brandell. “Josh (Chuba) came over after shaking hands and all that stuff, and we all started jumping around because then we knew we had four.”
The Elks ran the table in 2012 with 31 straight wins, none of them closer than 5-2. They entered state as the top-ranked team and lived up to the billing, defeating all three opponents for the second time this season, Maple Grove 5-2, Mahtomedi 6-1 and then Wayzata.
The 2012 Elk netters are ERHS’s seventh state championship team in seven different sports and the first of those to finish undefeated.
In their ninth state trip, all since 2001, the Elks had fallen in semifinals four previous times but this squad was too deep, too focused, too hardened to fail. Ronning assembled the toughest schedule in the state for them — they beat a total of five of the state entrants in the regular season — and they still came up 31-0.
State tennis championships are seldom won by your blue-collar towns. Edina has garnered the bulk of the big-school titles with Rochester Mayo, Eden Prairie, Mounds View, and Wayzata occasionally breaking through. Class A is dominated by Breck, Blake and St. Paul Academy.
Ronning, who’s been with the Elk program for 20 years, and head coach since 2008, while mentoring dozens of players as a pro at Daytona courts over the years, savored the achievement.
“This is the first time for our school, the first time for our conference, and the first time for the section that we just joined. There was a lot of history to break and the kids did it.
“It’s so exciting. Especially in a sport dominated by the club schools, and by money, at schools where kids get to play in a lot of tournaments and take a lot of lessons.”
Kent Nichols, a senior on the Bethel team this year, and one of many Elk alums on hand, asked to comment, said, “This is the culmination of everything we have worked for. I am so glad it could pay off in such a huge, monumental way. I am just proud of them all.”
Added alum Brendan O’Connell, a junior on the St. Thomas team, “I’m absolutely proud of them, especially for Mr. Ronning, and everything he has worked for.” Asked if he still feels like a part of it, O’Connell smiled, “There’s four or five guys on the team I had as roommates, so, yes, a little bit.”
The first two matches completed were Sam Gearou’s 6-1, 6-2 win over Matthew Tropsha at No. 2 singles, and Wayzata’s win at No. 3 doubles, by Jake Strom and Jack Garvey over Nathan Chanthamontry and Steven Delain 6-2, 6-2.
Brandell and Odegard at No. 1 doubles finished a 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 conquest of Jack Graven and Jason Kabarowski for the second point.
“When we got down 1-4, we said, we’ve got to stay calm,” said Brandell, adding that Graven especially was a tall and daunting opponent. “After a while they got tight and we started rolling. We started slow today and I think everybody started slow.”
Josh Gearou was engaged in a serious tussle with Wayzata eighth-grader Nicholas Beaty, but Gearou pulled it out 1-6, 6-2, 6-4.
“Josh had his hands full with Nick,” said Ronning. “His match was so tight and he finally broke (serve) and held, and then Josh Chuba won in the back, in a matter of about 15 seconds.”
Said Gearou: “I always play better in the second set. That’s nothing new … It was fun today. I was a little nervous but not too bad … I was looking at the other matches (scores) quite a bit.”
Chuba had cruised for set and a half, then got whupped for a while, and bounced back to win 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 over Henry Lee.
“I started to play more aggressively,” said Chuba. “He definitely gave me a good match. I had to earn it. They are a very good team.”
That’s when New Year’s Eve broke out. Once the celebration died down the Elks and their coaches and boosters relaxed and watched the final two matches.
Wayzata, state runner-up for the second straight year (losing to Rochester Mayo last year), got its second point at No. 2 doubles with John Kowalczyk and Matt Halverson nosing out Dylan Berger and Jesse Bragg 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 12-10.
The final match completed was Ryan Ness beating Jason Lee at No. 3 singles 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, preserving the added distinction for the Elks of avoiding any 4-3 matches during their 31-0 season.
Ness observed decorum admirably, fending off all attempts to join the celebration until he had shaken hands with Lee, the Trojan coach and the referee, and only then disappearing into a mass of delirious back-slapping Elks.
Wayzata coach Jeff Prondzinski, who brought his team back to the state finals with seven new faces from last year’s runner-up team, winning a tough section with Minneapolis South and Edina, paid tribute to the new champs.
“This was as close as we can come, with five three-set matches. We played our hearts out, and so did they,” said Prondzkinski. “The Elks played well and deserve to be the state champions. When you play the section we play in, you get to be tournament tough. We got the most out of our talent and ability and we just lost to a better team today.”
Still in action are Brandell and Ness, the Elks’ lone individuals tournament entry, in doubles. They face a Mounds View team in the first round Thursday at 10 a.m.
Elk River 5, Wayzata 2
(1) Joshua Gearou, ER, def. Nicholas Beaty 1-6, 6-2, 6-4
(2) Samuel Gearou, ER, def. Matthew Tropsha 6-1, 6-2
(3) Ryan Ness, ER, def. Jason Lee 6-1, 4-6, 6-4
(4) Joshua Chuba, ER, def. Henry Lee 6-2, 3-6, 6-1
(1) Mitchel Brandell-Matthew Odegard, ER, def. Jack Graven-Jason Kabarowski 3-6, 6-1, 6-2
(2) John Kowalczyk-Matt Halverson, W, def. Dylan Berger-Jesse Bragg, ER, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 12-10
(3) Jake Strom-Jack Garvey, W, def. Nathan Chanthamontry-Steven Delain 6-2, 6-2.