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Olivia Paradise a member of the Mahtomedi High tennis team practiced Monday August 25 , 2014 in Mahtomedi ,MN . ] Jerry Holt Jerry.holt@startribune.com

 

Last season, Mahtomedi’s success was a bit of a surprise in girls’ tennis. But this year, the burgeoning Zephyrs’ team won’t be sneaking up on anybody.

Led by No. 1 singles player Olivia Paradise, who is only a freshman, Mahtomedi is ranked fourth in Class 2A and is establishing itself as one of the top programs in the state.

“We have very talented people on this team,” said Paradise, who finished the 2013 season with a 26-5 record. “I think we’ll get really far in state.”

Paradise is ranked 10th in Class 2A. She won the individual Section 4 championship last season and advanced to the state quarterfinals. Mahtomedi coach Justen Seim, who is entering his third year at the helm of the Zephyrs, said his team’s expectations have been raised.

“It sure helps to have a girl who is in the top 10 in the state,” Seim said. “By her personality, you’d never know she was a top-10 player. She doesn’t act that way. She has fun and the girls feed off of that.”

Seim, formerly a coach at Mounds Park Academy and boys’ tennis coach of the year at Mahtomedi, leans on his upperclassmen to lead off the court — notably Hannah Shands and Madison Fernandez, both seniors and two-time captains — rather than his young players, including Paradise.

“Olivia leads by example,” Seim said. “As a ninth-grader, I’m never going to ask anyone to be a leader, but she’s put herself there and the team really does look to her a little bit.”

Paradise will have more competition for the section singles crown now that St. Paul Central junior Zoe Klass-Warch has switched from playing doubles. Stillwater junior Savannah Johnson, who Paradise topped for the title last year, returns as well.

“The three of them are going to probably battle it out for the section championship and see who goes to state,” Seim said. “It’ll be good tennis.”

Last fall Mahtomedi won the Class 2A, Section 4 championship, knocking off Hill-Murray in the finals. The Zephyrs fell to Prior Lake in the state tournament’s first round, but rebounded with a victory over Mounds View before falling to St. Cloud Tech in the fifth-place match.

“They got a taste for it,” said Seim. “Now we’re hoping to improve on our appearance last year in the state tournament.”

Fernandez, playing her fourth year of varsity tennis, said the state tourney was a good learning experience for her up-and-coming team.

“It was nice for us to be able to build the team up and go to state,” said Fernandez, who plays doubles. “I’m thinking we’re even better this year. Everyone has improved a lot.”

Girls’ tennis in Minnesota is ruled by Edina, winner of 17 consecutive Class 2A team championships. Mahtomedi aspires to be one of the teams on the rise seeking to overthrow the Hornets.

The Zephyrs, with a lineup of four freshmen, three sophomores, one junior and two seniors, already have knocked off some of the state’s best. They won a tournament at rival Stillwater, then defeated Eagan 5-2 and won 5-2 over No. 3 Rochester Mayo, before falling 4-3 to No. 5 Eastview.

“We’re really young and just hoping to learn from everything we’re going through,” said Seim, who purposefully constructed a tougher schedule to challenge his Zephyrs this season.

Shands, who qualified for the state tournament last year alongside Emily Cooper as a doubles team, has been a varsity player for Mahtomedi for five years. She said she’s excited for her final season and said the team’s goal is to improve on last year’s finish at state.

“When I was in eighth grade I never imagined we’d be this good, honestly,” Shands said. “The fact that we are is really awesome.”

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