Arlina Shen remembers the last time Blake failed to win a state championship. It was 2014, when Shen was a seventh-grader and Blake played in Class 2A.
“I still use that as motivation,” said Shen, Blake’s No. 1 singles player.
Now a senior, Shen helped the Bears win their fifth straight Class 1A team title, beating Rochester Lourdes 6-1 in Wednesday’s final at Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis.
With a pedigree like that of Blake, which won its 13th overall title, it would be easy assume the Bears see championships as a matter-of-course endings to a season.
In truth, their string of titles is the result of a confluence of talent, hard work and singular dedication to tennis. During the season, team goals take precedence over all else. It comes from the players themselves, who take over the leadership duties and make sure everyone’s priorities are in order.
“It’s everything from the little things they do when they get together to 6 a.m. practices, these girls want to win,” coach Mike Ach said. “They all got together before the tournament on one court and one of the parents said, ‘Can you get any practice with everyone on one court?’ I said ‘It’s not about the tennis. It’s about them getting together as a team and doing what they do.’ ”
One thing they do very well is play tennis. The Bears swept Litchfield in the semifinals and were in control against Lourdes from the outset.
Shen, the defending Class 1A singles champion, said the finality of her long and successful high school career hit home a few weeks ago, when the Bears held their yearly recognition of the seniors.
“All the girls give speeches and it hit me that I won’t be able to play with these girls again,” she said. “I’ve always had next year as something to look forward to. I didn’t realize how valuable our time together was.”
It spurred her to adjust her outlook, relax and enjoy the rest of her high school journey. “I’m trying to take things a little easier, have more fun,” she said. “It’s helping. I’m playing my best.”
After the victory, the Bears made their customary pilgrimage to Yum!, a west metro eatery, for a celebration not only of their state title, but of the last chance they would be together in full.
“It’s been a great group that won’t ever be together again,” Shen said. “I’m so grateful to have been a part of this team.”