MINNEAPOLIS — Through the first two days of the Class A state girls tennis tournament at the Reed Sweatt Family Tennis Center, fans of the Litchfield program made their presence known by wearing grey t-shirts with “3-Peat” on the back.
With the fan support, the Dragons have represented themselves well over the last three years at state, taking home hardware with every appearance.
During its latest installment, Litchfield fell to eventual champion Blake 7-0 before defeating Pequot Lakes 4-3 to take third place Wednesday. Two years ago, the team finished fifth before taking the runner-up spot in 2018.
“I’m emotional,” Dragons head coach Matt Draeger said while wiping away a tear. “The bottom line is that we have great kids, we have a good community, we have a good school. ... We just have an infectious group of girls that people want to be a part of year-round. I’m pretty fortunate to be able to hang around these kids, help coach them and have a better life. That’s what we are after.”
Dropping only one match over the course of the tournament, Blake defeated Rochester Lourdes 6-1 in the finals to capture its fifth consecutive state championship and seventh in the last nine years.
In their sweep over the Dragons, the Bears did not relinquish more than two games in a given set.
“If you know anything about tennis, you know that no one ever plays well for two sets. There’s ebbs and flows, but it's so hard to get a run on them because they are so good at serving,” Draeger said of Blake. “Even if you win a game, they come right back at you and you can’t get any momentum going because they are so good at that part of the game.”
Later in the day against the Patriots, Litchfield secured bronze by winning its first four matches. One day after getting contributions from the bottom of their lineups, the Dragons did their damage from the top.
At the top of the singles order, junior Avery Stilwell and sophomore Elise Bierbaum collected straight-set victories while the duo of sophomore Britney Prahl and Kylie Michels survived a three-set brawl with Madeline Sherman and Afton Crocker 2-6, 6-0, 10-6. The No. 1 doubles team of seniors Neriah Lara and Vaida Behnke sealed the team win after moving past Alexa Fyle and Elli Saxerud 6-1, 6-4.
Litchfield’s top pairing played in some tight quarter over the course of the second set, but in their second season together, the twosome have learned remaining vocal and the occasional moment of levity helps loosen up the nerves.
“When we’re happy and talking, everything goes much better than when we are straight-faced,” Lara said. “When we don’t talk, we kind of fall apart. She’s super tall, so when she gets her serve in and when I’m at net, its an automatic point for us.”
The 6-foot-2 Behnke added,”I think just making ourselves laugh and taking deep breaths definitely (helps), ‘cause when we are silent, it can feel like an island in a sense.”
Along with Stilwell and Bierbaum, the two seniors will compete in the state doubles tournament set to begin on Thursday. However, the team’s accomplishments wasn’t lost on Litchfield’s two veterans.
“It’s awesome. I have a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Wow, you are so lucky that you get to come to state, let alone be on such a good team,’” Behnke remarked. “Our team gets along so well and everyone loves everyone.”
Blake 7, Litchfield 0
(1) Arlina Shen, B, def. Avery Stilwell 6-1, 6-0 (2) Sonia Baig, B, def. Elise Bierbaum 6-2, 6-2 (3) Bella Suk, B, def. Alyssa Ross 6-0, 6-2 (4) Allyson Jay, B, def. Ryanna Steinhaus 6-1, 6-1
(1) Emily Melin/Caroline Cameron, B, def. Vaida Behnke/Neriah Lara 6-2, 6-0 (2) Anna Secor/Natalie Anderson, B, def. Britney Prahl/Kylie Michels 6-2, 6-2 (3) Nana Vang/Annabelle Swigert, B, def. Kelsey Ballard/Taylor Draeger 6-1, 6-1
Litchfield 4, Pequot Lakes 3
(1) Stilwell, L, def. Courtney Bolier 6-1, 6-3 (2) Bierbaum, L, def. Madeline Pluimer 6-0, 6-0 (3) Carly Chaney, P, def. Ross 6-4, 6-2 (4) Riley Fogarty, P, def. Steinhaus 6-3, 7-6
(1) Behnke/Lara, L, def. Alexa Fyle/Elli Saxerud 6-1, 6-4 (2) Prahl/Michels, L, def. Madeline Sherman/Afton Crocker 2-6, 6-0, 10-6 (3) Morgan Lueck/Quinn Trottier, P def. Ballard/Draeger 6-1, 3-6, 10-8
Despite taking the first set 7-6 (7) in her match against Blue Earth Area’s Marissa Benz, Minnewaska sophomore Addy Randt had trouble keeping her composure.
After every shot, Randt, the team’s No. 4 singles player, would tap her racquet with her hand, regardless if the shot went out, resulted in a point in her favor or a point for her opponent. She was trying to pump herself up, but when Benz captured the second set 6-2, Lakers head coach Tara Reichmann spent a long time consulting her young player.
What made matters more intense, the crowd began to grow around the court as the two teams were tied 3-3. Suddenly, the difference before victory and defeat was squarely on the sophomore’s shoulders.
“I thought she was letting some external things bother her during the second set,” Reichmann said. “I told her she needed to forget about the first two sets, that didn’t matter at this point. We need to focus on the super tiebreaker and getting through one point at a time. ... I tried to remove all the external things, there was a lot of clapping which was making her a little nervous and she was letting that play a little head-game with her.”
“I was really frustrated with everyone watching, so I tried to keep my cool by clapping my hands after every shot,” Randt said.
The sophomore was resilient through the pressure, jumping out to a 3-0 cushion in the super tiebreaker. She led throughout, earning match point at 9-6. Benz scored the next two points, but when her forehand shot was too strong, Randt officially overcame the noise, and was overcome with emotion.
“It feels really good,” Randt said with tears streaming down her face. “It’s really cool for us because we never won a match (at state) in our whole school, so it was a big year for us.
“I knew that I needed to hit smart shots, high-percentage shots and just be consistent.”
Making its first trip to state since 2016, Minnewaska washed years of sectional frustration by squeezing past Blue Earth Area 4-3 to take the state consolation championship.
“We had a tough match with Blue Earth; they’re a great team,” Reichmann said. “To battle through some of those close matches to get the win is just really rewarding after a struggle the last couple of years getting even to state. It’s a nice ending to a good story.”
The No. 2 doubles team of sophomores Maddie Thorfinnson and Olivia Richards won in straight sets, as did senior and No. 1 singles player Danielle Thorfinnson. Her week continues at state as she will team with sophomore Alissa Thorfinnson in the doubles tournament. The sisters are the fifth-seeded duo in the bracket.
Elsewhere, Annika Randt and Greta Reichmann were victorious, defeating the top doubles team of McKenna Dutton and Britt Howard 6-2, 6-4. Following a frustrating showing during the quarterfinals, Greta, one of five seniors on the team, was proud of the effort.
“I think knowing that today was my last match regardless, we are both just positive spirits rather than being all sad if we got down,” Greta said. “We got down 0-2 in the first set and we came back. We really showed who we were and who Minnewaska was.
“My emotions were all over the place. You’re happy, then you are sad. Just yesterday we were playing Litchfield, but knowing the footprint that we are leaving as our senior class, I think it makes us feel better. I think I’ll probably cry tonight, but it's all smiles right now.”