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Junior Zack Ekstein is one of the top players in the state. Last year he won 26 matches. Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii * rtsong-taatarii@startribune.com

 

Zach Eckstein had gotten used to being the “young guy.” He was the eighth-grader playing in key varsity matches in 2010; the younger brother on an Eagan team that finished second at state in his freshman year; the sophomore who bowed out in the quarterfinals of the singles state tournament last year.

That’s now changed, he said.

The baby-faced junior is very much a grizzled veteran on the Minnesota high school tennis scene, a match-tested and proven player who not only will be looked to lead his talented Eagan squad from the No. 1 singles position, but also be seen as one of the state’s best.

“It’s a little weird, I guess,” he said. “If anything, though, it’s a little less nerve-racking this year being one of the older kids. I know the competition. I know what to expect. There aren’t going to be any surprises for me, really.”

Eckstein and his teammates aren’t going to sneak up on anyone when they start the season April 4 against Woodbury. The Wildcats return their top two singles players and four of their top doubles players from a team that finished third a year ago at the Class 2A state meet.

Expectations already are starting to ramp up.

“We should have a really solid team,” coach Scott Nichols said. “We’ll have a lot of strong competition in our conference and our section—Jefferson returns a lot of kids, and Burnsville looks strong—but the goal is the same as it always is: finish high in conference and make it to state.”

To do that, Nichols said, Eagan will need key contributions from younger players moving up to varsity this spring, as well as the team’s senior leaders. The veterans include Andrew Finnegan, Ryan Ossell and Drew Nichols, the team’s No. 2 singles player who recently signed to play Division II tennis next year at St. Cloud State.

“We are really strong at the top of our team,” the coach said. “And we have a lot of depth with some strong JV players moving up. We should be solid and deep.”

Group support

Eckstein said there’s just something about high school tennis that puts a different, team-oriented spin on an otherwise individual sport.

“For some reason, I feel like it really helps me improve, because you have the support of your teammates,” he said. “It’s more energetic, more fun, and you’re surrounded by your friends every day.”

Also, with the condensed spring season, the schedule is chock-full of matches with practices few and far between.

“You’re really just focused on winning matches, and doing what it takes to get wins, rather than practicing over and over,” he said.

Last season Eckstein piled up 26 victories. His sights are set high again this year: a return trip to state, and a longer stay once he’s there.

He also wants to help along the younger kids on the team. It wasn’t that long ago that he was the eighth-grader feeling out of place, playing varsity matches for the first time.

“There were a lot of kids that helped make that a smooth transition,” he said. “Now, it’s kind of on us [older kids] to do the same.”

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