Minnetonka players and coaches celebrated with their championship hardware Wednesday afternoon (Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune)
The reactions from the Minnetonka players on their second consecutive Class 2A boys tennis championship were different from a year ago.
Gone was the playful exuberance, the thrill of winning their first team title in 42 years. In its place was measured tones and a calm satisfaction from a team that had spent the entire season sporting a great big bullseye.
But was their 2017 championship, which they earned by fending off East Ridge 4-3 in the finals, any less fulfilling?
Not on your life.
“They’re both special,” said senior Adam Thompson, who paired with sophomore Chris Lund for a three-set victory at No. 3 doubles that clinched the victory for the Skippers. “As a team, all year we were playing for each other. There was something about this group. We really fought for each other.”
Take, for example, junior No. 1 singles player Ben Wheaton. All season he knew he would take some lumps at the top spot in the lineup but absorbed them in a calm, collected style.
“Ben knew he was going to get beat up this year because his game is not where it’s going to be, but he was always cool,” Minnetonka coach Dave Stearns said. “That was the kind of leadership we got from our captains.”
Stearns said this championship, while not as rousing as their first one, was perhaps more meaningful. There was pressure from opponents, pressure to perform, pressure to repeat.
“Absolutely people expected us to win this year,” he said. “They had the target on their backs. I kept telling them to be who you are, not who other people say you are. Have confidence in what you do.”
East Ridge had been seeded No. 1 in each of the previous two state tournaments, but that top-billing proved burdensome.
“We were No. 1 last year and the year before,” said coach Suzie Heideman. “This year, as the 3-seed, we had the chance to ease into the tournament. I do like being the underdog. I told them that they’re rarely the underdog. Just go out and try things.”
Heideman manipulated her lineup for the finals, moving two of her top singles players to doubles in the hope of sneaking away with an unexpected point or two.
“The doubles kids knew they had a little more pressure, but at the same time, I thought they played really well,” Heideman said. “My instructions were just to go out there, have fun and try your best.”
In the end, it was Minnetonka’s experience, bolstered by the confidence gained while fighting off challengers to its throne, that made the difference.
“Last year was new for us. This year, we’ve all been there,” Wheaton said. “It’s not any less fulfilling. Not at all. A state championship is a state championship.”