Feels like '19: Alexandria pulls off dramatic comeback to beat Bemidji, clinches top seed in North sub-section
Down 3-1, Alexandria won three third-sets to beat Bemidji 4-3 and moved to 15-1 on the season.
The beautiful thing about tennis is every matchup is worth the same on the scoreboard, and nobody knows that more than Alexandria senior Gannon Lueck.
On Thursday afternoon, he watched freshman Owen Gilbertson close out a third-set win in the No. 4 singles match over Bemidji's Jacob Fuhrman. The Cardinals came back from down 3-1 with three third-set victories to beat the Lumberjacks 4-3 in what felt like 2019 all over again.
"This was huge for seeding in the section tournament," Alexandria head coach Dave Ronning said. "Now, it doesn't matter if we lose to Brainerd next Tuesday. We're still going to be the No. 1 seed."
Maybe even more important than seeding, the Cardinals gained experience of what it's like to come back when the chips are down.
In 2019, Alexandria's memorable trip to its first state tournament was highlighted by Lueck's No. 4 singles win in the Section 8AA final against Bemidji. It capped off two comebacks from down 3-1 in the semifinal and final matchups for Alexandria– a day that still lives on in the lore of this program. Lueck hasn't forgotten what he felt in those final moments.
"You're always talking to yourself out there," Lueck said. "Always cheering yourself on is huge. You can't let yourself get down, and you can't let the moment get to you. It helps if you have your teammates there for you."
This time around, Lueck was one of those teammates. Alexandria and Bemidji players gathered to see which team would be the victor in the evening's final match. Gilbertson beat Fuhrman 6-7 (5), 6-1, 7-5 to clinch Alexandria's 15th win of the season.
"That's a huge confidence boost for Owen there at fourth singles," Lueck said. "Going into the postseason, we need to get that momentum going and carry it throughout. We use our experience and try to pass it on to the kids that don't have it from 2019. It's been a blast."
Lueck and his doubles partner, junior Pieter Mulder, were also in a must-win situation at No. 1 doubles. Lueck and Mulder won a tightly contested third set 7-5 over Michael Dickinson and Logan Jensen for Alexandria's third team point.
"We don't want to let our team down," Mulder said. "When we know we're down, that's when we play our best. I think we're a pretty gritty team. That's the best way to describe it. We don't necessarily have the most skill, but we're a bunch of hard-working kids."
Ronning echoed Mulder's statement. He knows that with this group, it's never over until it's over.
"The first time we played (St. Cloud) Tech, we gritted it out," Ronning said. "It came down to the last match. The first time we played Bemidji, it was the same thing. Another 4-3 match. Going up to Brainerd, it was another tough 5-2 win. And then we get another 4-3 win here tonight. So yeah, 'gritty' is a great way to describe this team."
Alexandria's Brennan Parker and Tyler Jabas played together for the first time in the No. 3 doubles slot. After dropping the second set 6-4, Parker and Jabas did the little things right to win Alexandria's second team point.
"That's the first time they played together, and it's really the first singles match Owen played too," Ronning said. "Owen played one against (St. Cloud) Apollo, but it's Apollo, so I don't know if we can really even count that. We were at a point after the Tech match where we were at a loss of where to put these guys in the lineup. That's because we haven't played enough matches against good teams."
On May 11, Alexandria dropped its first head-to-head of the season at St. Cloud Tech 6-1. While the loss snapped Alexandria's undefeated season, it was welcomed by players and coaches as an opportunity to evaluate what needs improvement going forward.
"(Tech) is going to be the No. 2 seed over there because Becker already beat them," If we come out of the North at the No. 1, we're going to play them. When we lost that match, we tried to get all of the guys to buy into the idea that this is the best thing that could've happened to us. This is the wake-up call we all needed. What do we need to do to get to that next level? Well, today, we took a step in that direction."
Alexandria got to see Becker last Friday in triangular where the Cardinals (16-2) beat Willmar 7-0 but fell to the Bulldogs 5-2.
Alexandria is excited about the tournament that is just around the corner, but players and Ronning know nothing will come easy.
"I don't feel as comfortable because we haven't played as many matches," Ronning said. "(Two years ago), we played 30 matches, and we've only played 16 this year. I feel like we haven't played as tough of competition. What it came down to was I didn't get to make the schedule. I always do the schedule and get us to play tough teams. With it being a Covid year, I didn't get to do it. I like us to be tested going into this playoffs, and I just don't feel as comfortable right now."
Nerves weren't an issue for the 2019 Cardinals, but the same can't be said for this team. Ronning is still waiting for the confidence to break through in tough spots up and down the lineup.
"I knew that the group two years ago would push themselves to win," Ronning said. "With this team, there are still some guys out there that we're trying to move around and get comfortable. We have guys that practice well, but as soon as the match starts, we don't have that experience under our belts. The nerves get to them, and they struggle. If we can get our kids to play smarter and get over the nerves, we'll be fine. That team we had two years ago didn't have any nerves. They just went out there and played."
In stacking up the Section 8AA field now compared to two years ago, the teams at the top are similar, but the Cardinals are focused on taking it one point at a time.
"To be honest, we don't look at what the rest of the competition is like," Lueck said. "We are just playing our game trying to stay mentally strong. We want to do the little things right and play together as a team."
Ronning's offensive line
Ronning is a big football fan, and when he compared senior captain Jacob Partington to an entire offensive line, he meant it in the highest regard.
Being the top singles competitor in Alexandria's lineup means playing against each team's top guys every meet. Partington dropped his matchup against Fillipo Buffo 6-3, 6-1 last Thursday.
It's a burden physically and mentally to take on that role, but Ronning feels fortunate to have a leader like Partington in that spot.
"He's priceless," Ronning said. "I told him he's our offensive line. If you make a football team, you need a good offensive line. He has to open the holes for the rest of the guys to go out there and get wins. You have to play the best player every night. That takes a toll on you. After the match, he sat in this chair for a while, and you could see he was taking it hard, but that's a great player he played. I told him he opens the holes for other guys to run through. Boom, he gets up and starts cheering on everybody else."
The best leaders aren't just the best players, but instead, they're the ones that take on the toughest challenges. Captains Partington and Lueck know their responsibilities for this young team looking to repeat as section champions.
"I can't say enough about those two," Ronning said. "With the energy they bring every day, they're amazing."
When the final three matches were in their third sets, Partington ran around the courts with plenty of energy, giving support to any Cardinal that would listen. It was a welcomed boost for the remaining players.
"Parti is a great captain," Mulder said. "So is Luey, of course. He's so uplifting, and it's great to have them out there in those moments. We're one of the only teams that will go out there and turn into cheerleaders when we're done. It's part of the culture here."
"I think it messes with teams a little bit," Lueck said. "Hearing that cheering and not being used to having their teammates be there for them like that gets in their heads a little bit."
ALEXANDRIA 4, BEMIDJI 3
SINGLES- No. 1- Fillipo Buffo (B) def. Jacob Partington 6-3, 6-1; No. 2- Noah Johnson (B) def, Landon Schabel 6-3, 7-6 (9); No. 3- Aaron Jost (A) def. Isaiah Cerven 6-2, 6-3; No. 4- Owen Gilbertson (A) def. Jacob Fuhrman 6-7 (5), 6-1, 7-6; DOUBLES- No. 1- Gannon Lueck-Piter Mulder (A) def. Michael Dickinson-Logan Jensen 6-2, 5-7, 7-5; No. 2- John McNallan-Casey Rupp def. Andrew Wegner-Dylan Nelson 6-2, 6-2; No. 3- Brennan Parker-Tyler Jabas (A) def. Max Harris-Jack MacNallan