LITCHFIELD — On Thursday, the Litchfield girls tennis squad begins its journey back to state.
Following a successful showing at the big dance last season where the team earned runner-up at the Class A tournament, the Dragons, the top-seeded team in Section 2A, will face Redwood Valley.
If the team is able to advance to state, Avery Stilwell and Elise Bierbaum are likely be a major factor. The two juniors are two of the best Class A singles players Minnesota has to offer, with Stilwell currently ranked fourth in the state while Bierbaum is seventh.
Sitting at the top of the Dragons lineup, the two players have taken different paths to their elite status. Bierbaum goes about her business in a low-key manner. Stilwell swings her racquet with a bursting fire, one that was recently on display.
Prior to the Wright County Conference girls tennis championship Monday, players from the Litchfield and Orono programs engaged in plenty of pre-match chatter, not usually for teams aiming for the same prize.
Orono, hailing from Class AA, certainly had bragging rights, as it had earned a 6-1 squashing over the Dragons on Sept. 17. Playing out of the No. 1 singles slot, Stilwell was one of the ladies in green held out of the winner’s circle that day. With a chance at redemption in a rematch with Spartans’ No. 1 Lilly Anderson, Stilwell won the opening set 7-6, before falling behind shortly after. That’s when her competitive spirit kicked into gear.
“I won the first set and I was down 0-3 in the second set, but won the second set 6-3. I had some games were I had four aces. I was like ‘I want to go now. I want this to be done. I don’t want to give her any chance to come back, I just want this done.’”
Stilwell says she gets her fierce competitiveness from her parents, who both were athletes. The junior is a three-sport participant and is fueled by her willingness to leave it all out of the playing field.
“I feel like I always want to be the best and want to always do my best and compete to try and help my team win in any way that I can. I’m not necessarily saying that I always want to win all the time, obviously I do, but I don’t want to have any regrets looking back. I want to say that I played my best and the best for my team as well.”
Bierbaum, who is the team’s No. 2 singles player, is a one-sport star.
She enjoys other sports, but nothing compares to her passion for tennis. Bierbaum got into the sport thanks to her older sister, along with former Willmar head coach Jim Anderson.
Serving as a perfect fit with her personality, a love affair blossomed from there.
“He was just such a fun person, and he made the sport be so fun for me that I really just fell in love with it,” Bierbaum said of Anderson. “Since I do tend to be more of a reserved person, it’s not that I don’t like other sports, it’s that I’m not always very loud. I don’t always do the best in other team sports. I’m a thinker, so I like tennis because it’s not very loud or overly hands-on.”
As a self-described “observer,” Bierbaum is prone to processing her thoughts and emotions inwardly. While she’s not terribly expressive on the court, Bierbaum is every bit as hunger as her teammate.
“I’m definitely a perfectionist, thinking of my life in general,” Bierbaum said. “I don’t know if it’s always a good thing or not, but I have certain things in my life where I have such a strong passion to be the best that I can, that I really get hard on myself if I’m not competing at the level I feel like I should be. So my competitiveness comes from an inner desire that I don’t always portray that much to people.”
Stilwell is arguably the most vocal person of the Litchfield bunch, often giving out words of encouragement to her teammates. Playing Dragons tennis since the seventh grade, Stilwell has taken cues from her predecessors and molded herself into one of the team’s leaders.
As her leadership skills developed, so has her play, as she is enjoying 22-4 mark during her second season in singles competition. Making the leap from third in the lineup one year ago, Stilwell has learned to play smarter, taking higher percentage shots, limiting errors in an effort to chase winners and controlling her aggressive play.
“For quite a while, I thought I wanted to play No. 1 singles,” Stilwell said. “That was the goal, I worked all summer for it, and then I got to play there and now I have to live up to it. ... At first, it was definitely scary, but now I think I really thrive off of it and like it. I think I like the pressure, the extra added pressure. Being in other sports, I’ve had so many of these moments where the pressure is common to me now. I’ve been here before.”
In her first season as the team’s No. 2 player, Bierbaum currently holds a 22-1 record.
What does Bierbaum point to to explain her performance and success this season?
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more fit, and I feel like it comes out into my game,” Bierbaum said. “Also, I’ve worked on my mental game. I’m just a lot more of a confident person and with that inner-self confidence, it comes out not even just tennis, but my life in general. When I play tennis, I’m so much more confident to know that I have really good shots or I’m not as nervous to hit a winner.”
Stilwell and Bierbaum’s personalities and approach to the game appear to come from opposite ends of the spectrum, but in a matter of weeks, the two may be competing on the same side of the court. Following spectacular singles season, the duo will likely be paired together for a state run.
The two juniors would have to get through sectionals and potentially a match-up with the Dragons No. 1 doubles team of seniors Vaida Behnke and Neriah Lara, but each are looking forward to playing together.
“We’ve played a little bit,” Stilwell said of the potential pairing with Bierbaum. “It definitely hard to try and fit that in with the schedules that we have. ... It will be difficult getting into the doubles point of it because definitely doubles and singles are very, very different. That’ll be a tough mindset change, that’s one of the bigger things you have to get over, but I am so excited and I can’t wait to see what happens.”