Mounds View seniors Paige Thayer and Catie Meinen said it's unanimous: Their fifth consecutive state tennis tournament run is the most rewarding.
The Mustangs entered the season among the state's elite programs. But key graduation losses threaten to erode their dominance, evidenced by a rare Suburban East Conference loss.
Players dug in, becoming what coach Mike Cartwright called the most improved team he's directed in his 21 years with the program. The Mustangs (13-3) begin state tournament play Oct. 23 at the Baseline Tennis Center on the University of Minnesota campus.
Thayer, who along with Meinen cracked the varsity lineup as an eighth-grader, said this Mounds View team's margin for error "was so much less."
"We knew that if we wanted to get here we had to work our butts off in practice and I feel like we did," Thayer said.
Cartwright said the team stumbled through a midseason lull "where we did not play well," including a 4-3 loss to Hastings on Sept. 6.
Rather than overhauling the lineup, Cartwright pushed players to improve. He showed them film of their performances and mechanics and turned up the intensity and focus in practice. Players jumped rope and worked on drills to improve their foot speed.
"We had to get back to basics and make sure we're playing our game and not the opponents' game," Meinen said.
Mike's daughter, senior Mari Cartwright, said he pushed all of the right emotional buttons.
"This year he had to do a lot more to get us going and help us focus," Mari said. "He kept practice hard but he's very patient."
Mounds View was a different team in a 5-2 victory against Stillwater on Sept. 27.
"We've been more aggressive and confident," Mike Cartwright said. "It started with the Stillwater win and culminated with the [section final] victory over Centennial."
Last season Mounds View could bank on three points in most matches. Graduation claimed two of those players. But one remains, junior Summer Brills. She went 26-1 at the No. 1 singles spot, losing in a super tie-breaker to Blake senior Claire Carpenter at an early-season tournament but avenged the loss in a match Oct. 1.
"Summer rocks," Thayer said. "She's a machine."
Beyond Brills and the third doubles team of Mandy Huang and Lexi Pfenning, who fashioned a 17-4 record, most players hovered on either side of .500.
"I think this group surprised even themselves a little bit," said Mike Cartwright, adding that a strong schedule and fewer elite-caliber players forced the Mustangs to battle for matches rather than break them open.
A different journey ended in a familiar destination, with Mounds View players crowded around a section championship trophy, congratulating each other on the accomplishment while pondering the chance to play at the state tournament.
"This team has been more of an underdog but everyone came together and we really improved," No. 2 singles player Kourtney Jakubic said.
Said Thayer: "This one is the sweetest because I feel like we worked the hardest to get this one."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574