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Girls Tennis: Eye on the prize for Willmar's Hovland

Curt Hogg / Tribune1 / 5
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Most high school athletes dream of competing under the bright lights at just one state tournament.

Cayle Hovland has been there and done that. Now, she is eyeing her third state-bound trip in her third different sport.

Sporting a 15-1 record as the Willmar girls tennis team's No. 1 singles player this year, Hovland will be among the highest-seeded players in a talent-heavy Section 8AA singles tournament which begins Friday.

"It will definitely be a test for Cayle, but there isn't anyone that's worked harder than her to this point," Cardinals head coach Jim Anderson said. "We'll have just a couple tune-up practices and tweak some small things, but she's ready."

One of the most talented players in Anderson's six seasons at the helm, the Willmar senior is looking to become the first Cardinal girls player to reach state since Xiaodan Yu in 2011.

"From a talent standpoint, Cayle is as good as any competition she's going to face in singles at the section level," Anderson said.

Hovland has flirted with a state tennis appearance before, taking fourth place in the 2016 Section 8AA singles tournament.

"Last year, I would get in my head a lot and I would get down if things were tough," Hovland said. "I've improved on that a lot."

In her 2016 semifinal match against eventual state consolation bracket champion Abbie Kelm of Bemidji, Hovland showed her prowess by taking the first set.

Kelm responded by sweeping the next two sets without dropping a game.

"I think her opponent kind of underestimated Cayle a bit to open up," Anderson said. "And even as a junior, Cayle was showing that she's right up there with the best our section has. But it also shows some of the talent that the other top girls have, that [Kelm] just sort of flipped the switch on and didn't let Cayle get another game."

Any chance Hovland had at reaching the state tournament was erased in a third-place match loss to Rocori's Brynn Sauer.

Of the eight players to reach the section quarterfinals last season, none graduated, which will likely set up some familiar matches once play begins Friday.

"It will be a lot of players I've seen before," Hovland said. "I think Rocori and Bemidji might be my toughest matches. I just have to focus on those but not overlook anyone else."

2017 has seen Hovland serve up some revenge, in addition to plenty of aces, against Sauer. Hovland defeated Sauer in straight sets on Aug. 31 and won a three-set battle on Sept. 25, a match in which Hovland's competitiveness was on full display.

"You saw that in the match against Rocori, that Cayle's desire to win is always higher than her opponent," Anderson said. "She got down in that first set when she wasn't attacking, then got aggressive and put it away.

"A lot of girls like to win, but Cayle really, really plays to win."

That's why Hovland spent her off-season—of which there is little as one of the area's top three-sport athletes—perfecting her serve and a unique slice.

"I worked most on my serve, because it's just easier when you serve and they can't hit it back," Hovland said. "If they can't hit it back, you don't have to play and use that energy, and that's the game right there. Also just trying to improve my groundstroke, getting a good slice and trying to hit to the corners. A lot of girls get tired if you hit your corners and that can be big."

Hovland has dominated opponents with a heavy slice from the baseline, a look that most players don't regularly see.

"Cayle's worked really hard on getting that slice down. It's been tough for other girls to handle," Anderson said.

Even with a strong ground game, Hovland and Anderson both say that she is at her best when playing aggressively at the net.

"The thing that will be key is coming into these matches with a gameplan and then going out and following through on it," Anderson said. "You can't sit back and play conservative and let your opponent get to her strengths. I don't do a lot of in-game coaching, so establishing the plan the day before is big."

While Hovland acknowledged that at times in the past she would allow her opponent to dictate the majority of the match, she knows that she is now as ready as ever to take control of the court both physically and mentally.

"The big thing is not letting anything get into your head," Hovland said. "You have to stay positive. I've been improving on not playing their game and letting them play to their strengths while making better shots than them."

Hovland is coming off a trip to state with the Cardinals girls basketball team last winter and a sixth-place finish in the discus at state track and field in the spring. The stage won't be too big come Friday.

"Cayle's got plenty of experience not only with section play in tennis, but she's been a competitor at state in two other sports," Anderson said. "She knows what she has to do with that."

If winning each major PGA golf tournament consecutively became known as the Tiger Slam and doing the equivalent in tennis is known under the moniker of a Serena Slam, there could soon be a new phrase for reaching the state tournament as a prep athlete in three sports in consecutive seasons: the Cayle Slam.

Curt Hogg

Curt Hogg is a sports reporter at the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016.