Spring Lake Park girls’ tennis coach Mark Fierst’s assessment of this season says it all.
“To me, this year has been one of the most significant in our program’s history, but has also been one of the most rewarding seasons I have had in 14 seasons as the head boys’ and girls’ coach,” Fierst said.
Torn asunder by internal drama, the girls’ team underachieved last season. A new attitude helped produced a 13-3 record this fall and some optimism for the playoffs. Spring Lake Park begins play in the Class 2A, Section 5 tournament on Wednesday and the Panthers believe they can make a solid run.
Senior Paxton Alto, the Panthers’ No. 1 singles player and a team captain for the past three seasons, spoke with Star Tribune reporter David La Vaque about players’ efforts to steer clear of the failures of last season.
Q: Coach said this team is capable of making some noise in the playoffs this year. Is that the players’ vision as well?
A: Yeah, we’re feeling really confident this year. Typically we win our first-round match and then get crushed in the second round but this year we’re hoping to get to the semis first, and then maybe the finals.
Q: In three years being one of the team captains, how have you grown in that role?
A: I think I’ve learned how to be a leader and I think I’ve matured a lot. I’ve learned how to work with different people and I think I’ve achieved a balance this year of having fun with the girls at practice while making sure we get the most out of it.
Q: Coach was blunt when he said last year’s team underachieved because of internal conflict. What has your role been in making sure this season was a better situation?
A: Yeah, last year the team was definitely split. Half of us wanted to go forward and make this a great season whether we had the other half with us or not. We had serious talks at the end of last season about whether or not girls want to be on this team. Luckily, the other half jumped on board and there was a huge attitude change. That’s why we’ve been successful.
Q: Win or lose, on or off the court, when did you get a sense that this was going to be a better, more positive season?
A: I got a good sense of that at the Coon Rapids Tournament. Last year we lost all three matches and this year we won all three. Beating Coon Rapids was huge for us and showed us that we were a different team.
Q: Coach said your No. 1 and No.?2 doubles teams are undefeated. What is working so well for those girls?
A: Kati Thunborg and Christina Tran, our No. 1 doubles team, have played together for about three years and we figured they would be good. Last year they beat Mounds View. And then [twin sisters] Madisen and Mackensay Kelly at No. 2 have done even better than we expected.
Q: What are some of your key victories this season?
A: Beating Emily Bauer of Coon Rapids was probably my biggest victory because she had always beaten me by a lot. And moving to No. 1 doubles with Christina and beating Benilde-St. Margaret’s restored my confidence after I struggled during the middle of the season.
David La Vaque