Last year, Columbia Heights boys’ tennis coach Ya Yang spoke at the team banquet May 31, recognizing a successful season while challenging a large group of returning players to make the next season something special.
Challenge accepted. One year to the day later, the history-making Hylanders gathered for practice on the courts behind the school, preparing for their program’s first state tournament appearance.
They open against St. Paul Academy at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis.
“It pretty special,” Yang said. “This was one of those years where it all worked out.”
Success wasn’t a one-year process, however. Yang joined the coaching staff in 2010 and molded players he could use in a variety of ways depending on the situation.
“He wants us to be successful and he tries to bring it down to the basics,” senior Michael O’Leary said. “He’ll say, ‘Clean it up. Just be simple and you won’t make any mistakes.’ ”
The payoff came in the Class 1A, Section 5 championship match against Fridley. The Hylanders previously defeated Fridley 5-2 and won the Tri-Metro Conference title. For the rematch, the Tigers loaded their doubles lineup and Yang did likewise.
Senior Blake Kuether, who as a sophomore singles player became the Hylanders’ first state tournament entrant in about two decades, moved to No. 1 doubles. O’Leary, typically a No. 2 doubles players, joined Kuether.
“They had to be the tone-setters,” Yang said.
Even better, they were closers. O’Leary’s final shot won the match, clinching the deciding fourth point in a historic 5-2 victory. The team competition in the state tennis tournament started in 1950 and 66 years later, the Hylanders finally get to join the party.
“Tennis really isn’t a big thing at our school,” Kuether said. “There is the thought that there’s not much hope because you play for Columbia Heights. So we made history, but nobody knows about it until we tell them.”
School officials helped spread the word with a pep rally, where there was much to celebrate. Kuether won the individual section singles title. Senior Manij Ghishing, second place in singles, also qualified for the individual state tournament draw. Sophomore Elyazid Chiboub and senior Mahir Ibrahim took the doubles crown.
Despite Ibrahim’s doubles prowess, Yang moved him to No. 2 singles for the Fridley section final. Ibrahim embodied the team’s selfless attitude.
“I thought, ‘It’s going to be a tough one, but I have to pull it off for the team,’ ” said Ibrahim, who won the point by playing a more aggressive, double-inspired style.
O’Leary leads the way when it comes to success at myriad positions. Undefeated all season, O’Leary is Yang’s choice as the Hylanders’ most valuable player.
“He’s the spiritual leader of this team,” Yang said. “If you had 10 Michael O’Learys, you’d have a darn good team.”
Of his coach’s praise, O’Leary said, “It’s honor because every day I came to the court, I came to work. Even if I was playing a position I wasn’t as comfortable with, I played to win.”