The weight of 48 years was on the shoulders of the Bemidji boys tennis team on Wednesday afternoon. It had been that long since the Lumberjacks made the trip to state, and a bold coaching call combined with relentless tennis got them over the top against a team that had stung them in the past.
Alexandria had gotten the better of Bemidji over the last two seasons. The Lumberjacks lost three 3-1 leads in the last three head-to-head meetings, including one that sent the Cardinals to state for the first time in 2019. This time, Bemidji left no doubt in a 5-2 win during the section championship.
"When you're competing with a group like Alexandria, you know they're exceptionally well-coached, they have great athletes and are a class-act program," Bemidji head coach Kyle Fodness said. "That makes it tough to win any match against a team that does everything the right way. Our guys having a couple of early-season losses was a motivator for them. They were playing for a lot of players that didn't get to play last year and a coach from the 2019 team."
Fodness took over for his dad, Mark, who tragically passed away in the fall from a heart attack. More on his first year as the head coach can be found on www.echopress.com.
In the second meeting between Bemidji and Alexandria during the regular season, Michael Dickinson and Logan Jenson lost a three-set battle to Alexandria's Pieter Mulder and Gannon Lueck. Before the 8AA championship match, Fodness asked them to play singles for the first time this year with the season on the line.
The risk paid off as they both cruised to two-set singles wins.
"On days like today, a victory doesn't come down to a coach," Fodness said. "You hope to put the players in a position to succeed. That's all I can do, and it all comes down to the players. Our first doubles team, with senior captains being asked to move to singles, is a big risk. Logan hasn't played singles in his high school career, and Michael hasn't in two years. But they had to go out there and play, so the credit goes to them."
Not only did shaking up the roster work, but it also got Bemidji all seven first-set wins. The Cardinals were not able to make adjustments early enough to be successful.
"It surprised us a bit," Mulder said. "We needed a singles win and needed to sweep doubles. It just didn't happen."
Despite coming up short, the Cardinals had one last comeback push in them before it was all said and done. Mulder and Lueck battled back to win in three sets at No. 1 doubles before Andrew Wegner and Dylan Nelson did the same at No. 2 doubles.
Mulder played with Lueck, a senior, on and off this season. Their ability to keep things loose when the chips were down led to multiple comeback victories.
"I love him to death," Mulder said. "He's just so fun to play with, and he's such a little goofball. It's a good time playing with him. He and (Jacob Partington) were honestly the heart of this group. We would've been nothing without them. Even two years ago, when we made that state-run, they were huge."
Alexandria had to beat St. Cloud Tech for the second time this season to get to the section championship. The Tigers ended Alexandria's undefeated run on May 11. The rubber match was highly anticipated and lived up to its billing.
The Cardinals won two matches in the third set to escape with a 4-3 victory over the Tigers. Landon Schabel beat Emilio Esteves at No. 3 singles before Brennan Parker and Tyler Jabbas clinched the win at No. 3 doubles. Lueck and Aaron Jost won matches in Nos. 2 and 4 singles in two sets as well.
Parker, who his teammates call "Bear," has been an emotional leader down the stretch. Parker and Jabbas were locked in at No. 3 doubles down the home stretch of the season and made the most of their senior campaigns.
"Bear is one of my best friends," Mulder said. "This season has meant so much to him and Jabs. It was awesome to see them play so well and have fun for us. They stepped up, and we're going to miss them a lot."
Beating Tech was the consolation prize on a bittersweet day. Avenging one of three losses on the season was the first goal on Wednesday.
"We wanted to beat them so bad," Mulder said of beating St. Cloud Tech. "The last time we played them, they wanted to beat us so bad too. This time, they looked right past us. We surprised them, and that's the best feeling ever. We didn't take that loss to heart. We used it to fuel us. We practiced to beat Tech, and we were ready for them this time."
It was the final win in another successful spring for this program as the Cardinals wrapped up the team portion of their season with a 19-3 record.