by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Nobody on the Elk River tennis team had ever seen anyone overcome a 5-0 deficit in a third set to win a match.
Still, when Brooke Burns and Dani Dokken found themselves in that very predicament Tuesday, with no less than the conference championship at stake, their teammates kept their hopes flickering.
To everyone’s astonishment, including their own, Burns and Dokken pulled it off.
With all other players on both teams watching and cheering nervously and boisterously, along with all the parents and coaches, the Elk duo scrambled all the way back from 0-5 hole to beat Centennial’s Meghan Langen and Kim Gromek 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-2) at No. 3 doubles.
“There’s a first time for everything,” chirped Burns about the improbable rally that delivered a 4-3 victory for the Elks over their arch rival, on the Cougars’ courts. Not that she and Dokken were as cool as they appeared. “I’m still shaking,” said Burns, holding up her hand to demonstrate, 10 minute later.
The larceny by Brooks, a sophomore, and Dokken, a freshman, leaves the Elks and Coon Rapids tied for the Northwest Suburban Conference lead, each 8-1 with one match left. Centennial, winner of the last three NWSC titles and six of nine, finished conference play 8-2. Andover is 7-2.
Asked if she’d ever seen a comeback like that, Elk coach LeRoyce Chapman, who played for the Elks and Bethel and has coached for five years, said, “I can’t ever remember seeing one. I’ve seen comebacks from 1-4 from my girls a couple times. But not 0-5. You don’t see that very often in tennis.”
Added Elk co-captain Hadley Purdy, a four-year veteran: “In my high school career I haven’t seen it either…. I started to think it could happen when they picked up momentum and got to 2-5. I could see it in Brooke’s and Dani’s eyes.”
The two heroines cited emotion more than tactics when asked how they did it.
“I don’t know, we just started to play harder, when the team came over to cheer us on,” said Dokken.
They had center stage after the No. 2 doubles team, Erin Reiner and Emma Hannegraaf, lost 7-5 in the third set, and minutes later Lauren Brayden fell 6-4 in the second set at No. 3 singles.
At the same moment two-dubs lost, Burns and Dokken fell behind 5-0. So the Elk chances looked grim. However, the presence of the rest of the squad, perched like blackbirds on a wire alongside the court, buoyed the girls still playing.
“This was pure team spirit,” said Burns. “We knew it was tied 3-3, and we knew we needed it, and we saw the whole, entire team come over, and we really wanted it for them. It’s a huge match for the conference and we haven’t beaten Centennial in, like, forever.”
She added, “Even when it was 0-5, they cheered us like we were up 5-0.”
Chapman said when she huddled with the girls at 0-5, she encouraged them to play like they had nothing to lose. They followed that advice and started hitting and serving aggressively and loosely. That got them two points. Another huddle. Chapman said they put a plan in place that the girls followed. Soon it was 5-4.
“Then I started thinking, Whoa! They might be able to do this,” said Chapman, who nonetheless sat motionless and poker-faced throughout, as if not wanting to upset the karma.
Huddling at 5-4, Burns told Chapman to “tell the team we’re doing it for them.” Sure enough, they pulled even at 5-5, fell back 6-5, then took a 40-love lead, gave up two games, and hit another winner. Six all. In the tie-breaker, all the momentum had shifted and the Elks cruised 7-2.
Surprisingly, no mob scene ensued. As thrilled as they were, the Elks quietly enveloped Burns and Dokken and limited the celebration to tight, lingering hugs, rather than jumping around and whooping it up. Knowing how bad Centennial must have felt, the Elks didn’t want to rub it in. “We kept it low-key,” said Burns.
The Elks quickly won at 1-2-3 singles, matches Centennial coach Arnie Lamers all but conceded in order to stack up his doubles to try for a sweep there and take his chances at four-singles.
Centennial took one-doubles quickly, as their normal one-singles teamed with a one-doubles player to clip the Elks co-captains Purdy and Becca O’Connell. The Cougars also won the first set at 2D and 3D and 4S. The Elks fought back with wins in the second set at both doubles matches, while Brayden went up 3-0 in the second set.
But when the Cougars regrouped to take 2D and 4S, all seemed lost.
After all, when did you ever see anyone come back from 5-0 in the third set?
Well, you have now.
“The team could not be more proud of the three doubles team!” exclaimed Purdy. “They came out and left their hearts on the court. Huge win! Especially with Centennial being such a huge rival.”
Coon Rapids: new power
Coon Rapids, never before a factor in the NWSC tennis race, lost to the Elks 6-1 early in the season but conquered everyone else, including Centennial and Andover, each 5-2. In fact, the Cardinals have the best overall record, 18-3, in the conference. The Elks are 14-4.
The Elks lone loss was against Andover 5-2. Andover’s other loss was against Centennial 5-2.
This marks the first time in 10 years of NWSC tennis play that it’s been a four-team race. Most often it’s just between the Elks and Cougars in the end.
On Thursday, Coon Rapids will finish NWSC play against Maple Grove (5-4 in conference) while the Elks face Osseo (1-8) and Andover takes on Anoka (4-5).
The Elks won the three championships not won by Centennial previously. If the Elks beat Osseo they’ll have their first title, or a share of it, since 2009.
Elk River 4, Centennial 3
(1) Meagan Brown, ER, def Claire Olson 6-0, 6-0
(2) Annika Teske, ER, def Leah Haiden 6-1, 6-0
(3) Jen Koehler, ER, def Gabby Loch 6-0, 6-0
(4) Mari Zech, Den, def Lauren Brayden 6-3, 6-4
(1) Jenna Sundstrom-Jasmin Bretoi, Cen, def Hadley Purdy-Becca O’Connell 6-0, 6-2
(2) Emily Johnson-Julia Hudgens, Cen, def Emma Hannegraaf-Erin Reiner 6-2, 2-6, 7-5
(3) Brooke Burns-Dani Dokken, ER, def Meghan Langen-Kim Gromek 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-2)