Tennis: Down 3-1 twice, Cards stun Bemidji, Willmar to advance to first state tournament

Completing a comeback is one of the more difficult things to accomplish in sports. Doing it twice in one day and adding the weight of a state tournament berth on top of it is what made Thursday afternoon in the St. Cloud area all the more impress...

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Gannon Lueck (middle) is hugged by Jacob Partington and mobbed by the rest of his teammates after clinching a state tournament berth for the Alexandria Cardinals with a 4-3 win over Bemidji on Thursday. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

Completing a comeback is one of the more difficult things to accomplish in sports. Doing it twice in one day and adding the weight of a state tournament berth on top of it is what made Thursday afternoon in the St. Cloud area all the more impressive for the Alexandria boys tennis team.

The Cardinals beat Willmar and Bemidji to earn a spot in the state tournament for the first time in school history. In each match, Alexandria faced a 3-1 deficit.

"I don't really know how to explain it," Jacob Partington said. "They were two really close matches. I don't know what to say. It's just one of the best feelings ever."

Partington's lack of words for the moment were more than understandable. The odds were stacked against the Cardinals when they stepped off the bus in Sartell.

The Willmar Cardinals were the favorites to win due to their stacked singles lineup. Will, Hunter and Peyton Fischer are senior triplets who rarely lose. Willmar finished the regular season with one loss and beat Alexandria in both meetings. Alexandria found itself trailing 3-1 with the final three matches going to third sets.


Partington and Pieter Mulder pulled out the first of three wins in the number two doubles match. Gannon Lueck won six straight games in the third-set win after dropping the first three. It all came down to Eli Simonson to keep the season alive.

"I watched him fight through that second set." head coach Dave Ronning said. "He was going up against one of those triplets. They're incredible tennis players. Eli showed why he's so important to this team. He played his heart out. As soon as he won that second set I could see that he flipped a switch."

Simonson took the third set 6-2 - completing the first comeback of the day. Alexandria's upset win earned it a trip to Apollo High School to play for the section championship against Bemidji.

"I just felt like it was my time," Simonson said. "Coach came over and talked to me during the change-overs and stressed to me about the mental game. That's a lot about what tennis is. I just kept a positive attitude and told myself I could do it."

Waiting for the Cardinals was the Bemidji Lumberjacks. Not only were they looking to avenge a 4-3 regular season loss to Alexandria, but also to make their first trip to the state tournament.

Alexandria found itself down 2-0 after Bemidji swept sets in the number one singles and number three doubles matches. JJ Foster picked up a much-needed win at second singles. However, after winning the first set in the No. 1 doubles match, Zach Wosepka and Hunter Croonquist couldn't even the score - giving Bemidji a 3-1 lead.

"When we were playing we could see the other matches finishing," Mulder said. "You start to feel the pressure knowing you have to win. (Partington and I) just kept talking to each other and tried to stay positive.

Less than a minute after falling down 3-1, Alex Jost won the third singles matchup. Once again, the fate of the Alexandria Cardinals was put on the shoulders of Mulder, Partington and Lueck.


Partington and Mulder lost their first set in the No. 2 doubles matchup. After forcing a third set, they suppressed their nerves and came away with a match win. The fans in attendance rushed to the other side of the fence where Lueck and Jonah Fuhrman would play the final set of the 8AA tournament.

"I love that moment. I wanted that moment," he said. "I wanted to be the guy right there. It was my chance to step up."

Lueck won the first five games with ease. With Fuhrman serving, he lunged out for a ball and came up limping. In the brisk spring weather, a leg cramp was the last thing he wanted.

"It couldn't have come at a worse time," Lueck said. "I just didn't want to stop. It hurt so bad but it didn't matter."

Fuhrman took the next two sets, forcing another change over. The Cardinals were huddled near the net watching the ball go back-and-forth. Fuhrman hit a lob that allowed Lueck to charge the net and put away a hard-hit winner. As he watched the ball hit the clay in play and bounce past Fuhrman, he let out a roar.

"I didn't want anyone else in that spot," Ronning said. "Gannon was so tough. I'm so proud of him for pushing himself. I don't think these guys had anything left to leave on the court."

Alexandria stormed the court. The weight was lifted off their shoulders. For the first time ever, it was all smiles in the section tournament.

"I'm so proud of these guys," Ronning said. "They're such a great group and they are so deserving. I don't know what to say. I'm just so happy for this team, these coaches and for the city of Alexandria."


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