Sports editor’s note: This is the first of what will be a series of stories we’re calling Celebration Saturday, celebrating past achievements for area teams and individuals. Each Saturday, we’ll take a look at another area team or athlete.
LITCHFIELD — There isn’t another school in this area that has enjoyed as much success on the tennis court over the years as Litchfield.
Between the boys and girls programs, the Dragons have captured five individual state championships, a team state championship and many more state appearances.
Long-time boys head coach John Carlson Sr. has witnessed much of the team’s success over the years and was hoping to add to it, but due the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season never had a chance to get going.
As much as 2020 will always be a blank mark in the history books, 2020 also marks the 20th anniversary of the last time Litchfield tennis players walked away from state with the gold.
In the spring of 2000, Alex Carlson, John’s son, and Chris Patten, were seniors that were just months removed from helping the Litchfield basketball team capture its first state crown. They embarked on crossing another title off their list: Class A state doubles champions.
The pair enjoyed strong finishes at the state tournament each of the prior two seasons and more than 100 wins in their tennis careers, but in their last activities as Dragons, Patten and Carlson sealed the deal. And did so in emphatic fashion.
“The greatest part of what Chris and Alex accomplished was within a 90-day period, they won two state championships, convincingly,” Carlson Sr. said.
Here’s the story on how Patten and Carlson got it done.
The journey of the 2000 Class A state doubles champions began well before either player stepped foot on a tennis court.
“It goes back to waiting at the same bus stop to go to kindergarten together,” Carlson said. “That’s probably the first place that we crossed paths.”
Patten added, “I grew up in the Carlson house. They lived about a block away from where I grew up here in Litchfield. I’ve known them my whole life.”
The duo were on the same team in a number of sports. In football, Alex was the quarterback while Chris was the wide receiver. But it was basketball where the duo really shined and really shared in obsession.
Patten was the point guard on the hardwood, setting up the offense and breaking down the defense, while Carlson was an elite perimeter scorer on the wing. Carlson was a finalist for Mr. Basketball and ended his career with a school-record 1,807 points, a record that still stands.
Meanwhile, Carlson Sr. was the head coach of the boys basketball team during Litchfield’s glory years. The Dragons would win three state titles in a four-year stretch under his watch. He believes the duo’s beliefs to excel in sports year-round led to their eventual success in tennis.
“Basketball was their No. 1 love, but for small towns, to have kids specialize can really hurt programs,” Carlson Sr. said. “Being able to be so successful in various sports without specializing was done back then and I still firmly believe that it can be done now.
“For them, the variety was so refreshing and I really think it made them better athletes.”
Carlson played varsity tennis as a seventh-grader. Patten began playing tennis in eighth grade, reaching varsity as a freshman. By his sophomore year, Patten had elevated to the No. 2 singles spot in the lineup, right behind Carlson.
With state approaching in 1998, instead of playing in the singles tournament, the twosome opted to try their luck at doubles. And they meshed, beautifully.
With a wider variety of shots in his arsonal and finesse overall, Patten played on the left side of the court. Because of his serve, forehand and ability to hit harder shots, Carlson, the taller of the two, played on the right. However, their chemistry came from a different place.
“It probably goes back to the basketball floor,” Patten said. “That was our main sport, but the competitive edge and just understanding doubles as a whole kind of came natural to us.”
Carlson Sr. adds, “They both had really good hands and I think that came from basketball. The overlap from basketball to tennis and tennis to basketball is much more than anyone would understand as far as playing good defense in basketball is being a volleyer in tennis; you’ve got to have good hands and good feet.”
Carlson and Patten reached the Class A state doubles final in 1998, but fell 6-2, 6-2 to Phillip Johnson and Jarett Cascino of Rochester Lourdes. Johnson and Cascino defeated the Dragons tandem in the state semifinals one year later as Carlson and Patten took third place.
“I’d say our sophomore year, finishing second was a tremendous accomplishment because we didn’t go into the state tournament with an expectation that year,” Carlson said. “Our sophomore year was a pleasant surprise followed by a little bit of disappointment our junior year.
���It definitely did raise the expectations going our senior year knowing that we were there two years in a row and winning it all was definitely the mindset.”
Patten and Carlson were instrumental in helping the boys basketball team to an undefeated championship campaign. But that might have only had a week to get ready for the 2000 tennis season. A week was more than enough.
“Tennis was just something we did in the spring,” Patten said. “I didn't pick up a racquet and neither did Alex until the day we started tennis. In a way, there was zero preparation, there was zero emotional commitment to it. ... I really enjoyed the tennis season just because it was something different. It was outside, it was just a fun sport to play.”
With injuries lingering from football season and having finished a grueling basketball campaign, Carlson relinquished his No. 1 spot in the singles lineup. Yet, that allowed him to team with his younger brother, John Carlson Jr. (future tight end in the NFL) during the first part of the season.
“I do remember playing some doubles with him and it was just fun. Those first few meets for everybody is working through the rust of not having played much tennis. By that time in the school year and coming off the emotions of the basketball tournament, it was just kind of a really surreal and fun way to finish the senior season.”
While it was his first chance to team with his younger brother on the tennis court, it was his last time he got to play for his father.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it was absolutely fantastic,” Carlson remarked. “We had a few moments where both of our emotions flared, but it was something that was just really special. To learn from him, to watch him and the way he prepared as a professional, as a coach and as a teacher, he made a big impact and he taught myself and my brother and a lot of his athletes really what it meant to prepare for the sport, and more importantly, the real world.”
As for Patten, he jumped into the No. 1 singles spot.
“That was a good challenge” Patten said. “I think it forced me to elevate my game as well. ... It definitely made me a better player because of it.”
The Dragons featured seven seniors in the top 10. Guided by its veteran experience, Litchfield went 15-1 and entered the Class A state team tournament as the No. 1 seed, but would bow out early following a 4-3 loss to Duluth Marshall and 6-1 defeat to Winona Cotter.
“We knew going down as a team that we were going to run into some tough teams and it was going to be very challenging for us to win as a team,” Patten said. “To bounce back into the individual tournament, it’s pretty easy for Alex and I to switch gears and be like, ‘All right, it’s doubles time and lets play some good tennis.’”
Ripping through the first day of the state doubles tournament with a pair of straight-set victories, Carlson and Patten outlasted John Schollmeier and Josh Malwitz of Blue Earth Area 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) to advance to the final.
“Honestly, to win that in straight sets was honestly needed because the team that wins the second set, especially in a tiebreaker, goes into the third set with the momentum,” Carlson said. “Glad we didn’t have to find out how that would’ve turned out.”
The Dragons duo were on the cusp of redemption as they were set to face John and Brian Thomas of Winona Cotter.
The Ramblers nearly broke Litchfield’s serve to open the match, but after a few closely contested games, Patten and Carlson were up 4-0 in the first set before the match’s critical sequence. Down love-40, the Dragons rallied to take the game highlighted by a Patten shot on a short ball.
“Chris hit a few Sportscenter-type winners,” Carlson said. “He hit a diagonal lob that landed in the back corner. We didn’t smile because we were definitely focused on what was going on, but it was one of those things where we’re like, ‘Oh wow, if those shots are going in, we’re on today.’ The momentum built in our way, quickly.”
Carlson Sr. added, “In tennis, I call that an ‘impossible get.’ You get one that you maybe just shouldn’t, but you get it because you’re hustling. Chris got to that ball and it fired up our guys so much and deflated the opponent so much that they could never get any momentum going after that.”
Patten channeled his favorite sport to describe the zone he and Carlson were in that day.
“To go back to a basketball analogy, when Michael Jordan is on fire and he thinks the basketball hoop is five-feet wide and everything is easy to go in, that’s how I felt in that match where every shot that we hit was a winner or in the right spot at the right time,” he said.
Carlson and Patten would close out the match 6-0, 6-0 to win the second boys state doubles crown in Litchfield history, joining Tom Fenton and Dave Huhner in 1989.
“It was a surreal moment,” Patten said. “To have that feeling in basketball, which was our passion, and a few months later, doing it in tennis, was the cherry on top of our excellent senior year. It felt good, we knew we were close the two years prior and to get it done our senior year, it completed our high school career in probably the most perfect fashion.”
Where are they now?
Twenty years later, Patten and Carlson each still call Litchfield home.
Alex Carlson played four years of basketball at St. Cloud State University where he earned an education degree. After six years teaching and coaching in the Sartell-St. Stephen School District, Carlson now works for Anderson Chemical Company. He lives in town with his wife, Meggann, and three kids, Elise, Everett and Ivy.
As for Patten, he went to the University of Minnesota-Duluth before transferring and completing his schooling at Logan University in Chesterfield, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis.
Receiving a chiropractic degree, Patten has his own practice in Litchfield called the Patten Chiropractic Center. He lives in town with his wife, Annie, and four children, Molly, Edward, Vincent and Jane.
“I see Alex on a pretty regular basis and I run into Coach Carlson often as well, so we’ll talk about past games in the basketball season or old tennis memories when they come up,” Patten said. “It’s not something we talk about a lot, but when it does, it’s pretty fun to go back to the past and talk about certain matches or games or tournaments and going to state.”