The Duluth East girls tennis coach hasn’t had any sleepless nights when it comes to submitting Aili Hietala’s name as the Greyhounds’ No. 1 singles player.
“Next year I won’t know what to do. I’ve penciled her in for a long time,” Kruger said.
Hietala, the defending Section 7AA singles champion and winner of the 2019 Class AA state tournament consolation bracket, enters her senior season not knowing if there will be a section title to defend.
Uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic means that even though the Minnesota State High School League allowed fall sports such as tennis to compete in the regular season, there are no set plans to hold section or state playoffs.
“Since everything is so different right now, I am just taking my final year to have fun with my team. Not knowing if there will be any playoffs, it’s more of a fact for me to have fun my last year,” Hietala said. “It’s a chance to take some pressure, take some stress off. If there ends up being a state tournament that will be great.”
The Greyhounds co-captain has been to the state tournament in all five of her years on varsity, finishing third in Class AA as a freshman.
Hietala has come a long way since debuting as a 12-year-old seventh grader.
“She was always physically strong, well-conditioned and had the endurance, but she has honed her game,” Kruger said. “Every year it’s a little bit better. She has a little more spin on the forehand, puts more balls away and tries to attack a little more. Play more offense instead of defense.
“That’s part of her maturation and figuring out what she can do, that she needs to keep adding stuff to her game.”
Her coach isn’t the only person to have watched her game grow up. Senior co-captain Cursta Dimberio has played alongside Hietala since seventh grade.
“Even though we were in the same grade, I looked up to her a lot because she would always help me out on the little things. I got to grow up with her on the team,” recalled Dimberio, who adds Hietala’s baseline game is still her best attribute. “I think her biggest strength is getting the ball back to the other player; she can get anything back. When you play her, the points last forever because she is so consistent.”
While Hietala has strived to introduce more attacking play into her arsenal, the cancellation of the summer tennis circuit due to COVID-19 made the task more difficult. She often ended up driving to the Twin Cities to play against top-notch players on her own.
“When I was in seventh or eighth grade, I definitely was a baseline player,” said Hietala, who hopes to make a decision on where she plans on playing college tennis after the season. “I feel like I have grown over the years and have become a lot stronger and more aggressive. I feel it adds another element to my game and makes me better.”
East needs Hietala’s experience after graduating five starters from a year ago.
Still several talented freshmen and sophomores give East quality depth on a team that saw 54 players try out. While Dimberio is entrenched at singles, senior Natalie Goetzman and sophomore Annabelle Humphreys can play either singles or doubles. Senior Elley Graysmark and junior Ally Johnson are expected to play doubles.
“We’re young and deep,” Kruger said. “I tell the girls that we’re always reloading, there’s no rebuilding year.”
No road trips to the Twin Cities or multi-team invitationals — all part of an effort to reduce potential contact with the coronavirus — will affect the Greyhounds in terms of competing against quality big schools.
“It really hurts us,” Kruger said. “We usually get 10 or 12 Cities teams to come up and we go down on a couple Saturdays where we get about nine more matches down there. Our schedule is not what it was but we’ll play the hand we’re dealt.
“I keep telling them that instead of getting better in matches, we’re going to need to get better in practice. That’s the mentality we have right now. Our goal is a state tournament until we hear differently.”
Duluth Denfeld is loaded with experience as No. 1 singles player Kaitlyn MacMillan, a junior, is joined by senior Brooke Maciver and sophomore Madi Watts. The top doubles team of senior Kayla Skorich and sophomore Ava Borham also returns as do Skorich’s fellow senior co-captains Leah Halverson (No. 2 doubles) and Alayna Panfil (No. 4 singles).
Duluth Marshall returns senior Brenna Bollins and sophomore Meredith Boettcher to the singles lineup. Both advanced in Section 7A last year. Juniors Reese Orn and Emily Etter also return to give the Hilltoppers experience. The team is young but will be competitive, coach Greg Mirau says.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton’s program has nearly doubled in size this fall and is led by senior doubles specialist Kylie McKeon and junior singles players Marina Dostal and Addie Loeb.
Eveleth-Gilbert/Mesabi East has experience despite fielding no juniors or seniors. Sophomore Lydia Delich, the defending 7A champion and a three-time state tournament participant, leads the team at No. 1 singles. Sophomore Katelyn Torell and freshmen Anna Beaudette and Julia Lindseth could have breakout seasons in Dean Edstrom’s ninth season as coach.
It’s a new era for Grand Rapids-Greenway and Virginia, whose longtime coaches each stepped down.
Jennifer Dulong takes over at GRG after Lew Smiley led the program for four decades. Seniors Jordan Troumbly (fourth in Section 7AA in 2019), Eva Kangas, Nicole Ramirez and Hailey LaFrenier are joined by juniors Courtney Brandt and Emily Hill for a team that reached the section final four.
Kortney Rosati has replaced Jeff Mauston in Virginia, which finished as 7A runner-up a year ago.
Superior is led by senior tri-captains Jillian Reuille at No. 1 singles, Sydney DeMeyer and Maya Sickler in doubles and senior Anna Downs at No. 2 singles.