Sweatbands at mid-forearm, tank-top sleeves bunched at the top to reveal remarkably broad shoulders and a ponytail jutting through her camouflage baseball cap, Chanhassen’s Hayley Haakenstad commands attention on the tennis court.
The state’s No. 2-ranked singles player doesn’t twirl or flutter or tiptoe around the court like so many of her foes. She makes short work of an overmatched opponent on this day, attacking points and striding purposefully between them. She wins 12 consecutive games, uttering little more than a barely perceptible grunt when she serves. She’s a tennis player, sure, but she’s first and foremost an athlete. This is competition. There’s no room for foolishness or frivolity.
“I’m humbled when you say I’m an athlete,” she said. “I think that fits my style as a serve-and-volleyer. I’m just trying to take care of business.”
Get her off the court, however, and Haakenstad’s tunnel vision broadens considerably. For her, tennis is just one part — albeit a very big one — of the high school experience. She refuses to let tennis interfere with her pursuit of all that high school has to offer.
“The other day I was getting on the bus to go to the State Fair and there she was, getting on with friends from school,” coach Jim Mason said. “She goes to football games, takes part in school activities. She wants to be around her high school classmates.”
The girls’ tennis community in Minnesota isn’t overly large. Many of the players know and play with each other during year, regardless of which school they attend. Friendships develop faster than rivalries.
In 2013, Haakenstad, who had at one point held the No. 1 ranking in Class 2A, unexpectedly lost in the Section 2 quarterfinals. Haakenstad had harbored state championship dreams; now, she wouldn’t even make the field.
A week later, however, there she was, sitting in the stands at the Baseline Tennis Center in Minneapolis when she should have been playing, cheering for girls who were rivals just days ago.
“It was really hard for me at first, but my parents have told me from the beginning that a positive attitude is the best way to get through things like that,” she said. “In Minnesota, a lot of the tennis players are good friends. I went there to support my friends. I didn’t think anything of it.”
Said Mason: “She’s always like that. She’s mature beyond her years.”
That maturity shows up in Haakenstad’s approach to her team. Despite clearly being the Storm’s best player, she doesn’t separate herself in search of personal improvement. Mason selected her to be a team captain when she was a sophomore. It’s a role she seems born to play.
“She loves high school tennis, loves being a part of everything that goes into it,” Mason said. “She loves the bus trips and the pasta dinners and organizing events. She’s without a doubt one of the best teammates I’ve ever coached.”
Last year Haakenstad took it upon herself to do a little team-building. One day before practice, she put together small groups consisting of a varsity player, a JV player and a third-team player, hoping to develop camaraderie and cohesiveness throughout the roster.
“I thought they might be out there for one or two questions, then there would be a lot of sitting around in awkward silence,” Mason said. “It got to be 15, 20 minutes. They were having a great time. I finally had to say, ‘Hey, can we start practice now?’ ”
For Haakenstad, she was simply doing what came naturally: She was being a leader.
“I remember my first year here, when I was in seventh grade,” Haakenstad said. “I went to my first captains practice and didn’t know anybody. The girls were all so welcoming, I couldn’t believe it. They made me feel like I belonged. I wanted the girls on our team, especially the new girls who don’t know many people in high school, to feel the same way.”
So far this season, Haakenstad’s tennis game is on an upward curve. There’s a lot of tennis left to play, but a second consecutive disappointment seems unlikely. Still, she hangs on to a small piece of 2013, using it as motivation.
“My goal is to make the state tournament and make a good run,” she said. “But I don’t want to set the bar too high. You never know what could happen.”