by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
When Sam and Josh Gearou took over the top spots in a strong Elk River tennis lineup as seventh-graders, barely topping 5 feet, they were already so good that we could have made them athletes-of-the-week right away.
This is usually a senior honor, but we couldn’t wait that long with the twins, especially after they led the Elks to a 31-0 record and state championship as freshmen last spring. Our solution: make them co-AOW’s (first time we’ve done that) today in mid-career, then honor each singularly their senior year.
Along with winning almost 90 percent of the time, the twins get straight A’s, are unfailingly polite and well-groomed, are fine musicians, and while supremely confident, are completely devoid of ego, so quiet, in fact, that interviewers can seldom drag more than a couple words out of them.
They seem almost too good to be true, don’t they, Coach?
“We have had some tremendous players here, but these guys have the whole package,” agreed Elk coach Randy Ronning. “They are a coach’s dream.”
After three years, with three presumably better seasons to go, Sam has a 95-14 record and Josh is 94-13. Each has 29 to 33 wins each year. In three state tournaments, each is 9-7, a ratio that should increase dramatically now that they’re closer in age to their rivals.
Their presence also means that talented teammates, often juniors and seniors, can be pushed down to 3-4 singles, or to doubles.
“Having one player like them is a big advantage. Having two is a huge blessing,” Ronning said. “When they joined us, they took us to a different level.”
The boys have been playing “seriously” since age 10, Sam said, and first picked up rackets at age 6. They were both competitive swimmers, too, until age 12, always qualifying for state with their club team in Eden Prairie, with their aunt coaching them.
It’s easy for them to pick their top sports thrill. “Winning state last year,” Josh said. “Pretty awesome.” Their USTA highlight was a one-two finish in Level Three regionals at the 14 level.
Ronning, who’s had seven consecutive teams go to state, heard rumblings about the Zimmerman twins (who attended Salk in Elk River) when they were sixth-graders mopping up in their age group in USTA. The day after the state tournament that year, 2009, he brought them to the Elk courts to see them play first-hand. He also showed them the programs he hands out at each match, specifically the one featuring Brendan O’Connell, who had just finished with a team-record 186 wins, so they could absorb the program’s standards of excellence.
“That very first day, we hit for two hours, and I knew right away they were something special,” said the coach.
They were “retrievers” at first, said Ronning, chasing down everything. Now in the 5-foot-7 and 135-140 pound range and well-muscled, they show more speed and power each year. It should be noted that the twins are about a year older (16, almost 17) than their class. Their parents didn’t start them in kindergarten until age 6 because the boys were quite small.
Sam has a big spin serve and hard flat serve that reap aces.Josh is a competent server and has an edge in ground-stroking, although it’s very close. Ronning alternates them at one-two, although in big matches he’ll go with Josh at No. 1.
“They are very quick, very patient, very consistent. They don’t make many mistakes,” Ronning said. “They get to balls that most people can’t. There are some bigger hitters out there, but they are able to beat them, not every time, but they have an edge. They are very smart. They can hit topspin, backspin, sidespin, drop shots, loop shots. They use all the shots.”
Aside from tennis, Josh plays alto sax and Sam plays trombone in the Black Elk Jazz Band (which always earns top ratings in competitions) and concert band. They qualified for state with their History Day project, a report on a 1934 Minneapolis trucker strike. At home, they like to assemble computers and never need to call tech support.
The twins have played doubles in post-season until now, with one fourth-place state finish and one consolation title, but will go singles this year. “With Dustin gone, there’s still good players, but we can play with all of them,” said Sam, referring to four-time state champ Dustin Boyer of Forest Lake. Ronning projects that Josh will be one of the top three in the rankings and Sam will be in the six to 10 range.
Best of all, they’re both here for three more seasons.
THE GEAROU SCORECARD
Personal file — Age: 16 … Family: parents Dennis and Becky; older sisters Elizabeth, Sarah, and Rachel; younger brother Matthew … Sport: tennis … Other activities: concert and jazz band … Academics: straight A’s
Favorite stuff — Class: math … Foods: Sam, pasta; Josh, pizza … Drink: Gatorade … Athlete: Roger Federer … Reading: Josh, Ann Bishop’s dark fantasy novels; Sam, Bram Stoker’s horror fiction … Hobby: building computers