Embrace the battle.
This philosophy has fit East Ridge senior Ben van der Sman through youth soccer and the transition to full-time tennis in high school. The battle this spring is fulfilling high expectations.
The first Minnesota Tennis Coaches Association rankings of the season placed van der Sman atop the list of Class 2A singles players and put East Ridge third in the team poll.
“I’m really excited to see what we can do,” said van der Sman, who committed to play at Washington University, a Division III program in St. Louis. “We’ve still got some stuff to figure out, but the camaraderie is great. We’ve got great players, and I think we can make a really deep run this year.”
A six-member senior class has helped elevate East Ridge’s profile. The Raptors placed third at the 2014 state tournament, followed the next two seasons by a consolation title and another third-place trophy.
As van der Sman rose, so did the program.
As a freshman, he tallied the match-clinching point at No. 2 singles as East Ridge upset No. 1 seed Mounds View in the state tournament quarterfinals. He also qualified for the singles draw.
Though he made varsity as a seventh-grader, van der Sman remained a relatively casual player until the start of his sophomore year. That fall, he left soccer in favor of high-level tennis training.
“Tennis was where my passion was,” said van der Sman, who learned the game hitting with his father, Dave, who played club tennis growing up in the Netherlands.
Soccer provided van der Sman with good footwork and stamina. And he possessed a gift for pinpoint, powerful serves. He aced a drill as a sophomore by either knocking over or getting within inches of six cones on just six shots.
“My jaw dropped,” East Ridge coach Suzie Heideman said. “It took me about 30 shots.”
Strong serves are “a big part of my game and I’ve developed them into a weapon,” van der Sman said.
As a more committed sophomore, van der Sman helped the Raptors win the consolation title and again qualified for the singles draw.
Last season physical maturation led to van der Sman taking over the Raptors’ No. 1 singles spot. Heideman also challenged him to be a vocal, approachable teammate.
“Junior year was a huge year for me,” van der Sman said. “I really felt like my place was set as a real competitor in Minnesota. And being a captain I really learned some great leadership skills and I loved being in a position to help my teammates.”
Dealing with success, however, was a process.
“When he started getting ranked he felt like he couldn’t lose to anyone but the top eight or 10 players,” Heideman said.
“I just tried to remind him to play one point at a time no matter what opponent he was facing.”
In the singles draw at the state tournament, van der Sman won his first two matches and then lost to eventual champion Jackson Allen of Shakopee. But he regrouped to win the third-place match.
With Allen enrolled at Minnesota this spring, the singles title is up for grabs. Not that van der Sman is getting sized for championship ring.
Last season it was “a little tougher to be in a position where people expect you to win or your teammates count on you to win,’’ he said.
“But now I embrace the battle. I understand I’m not going to be perfect every day. I got to the point where I don’t hate losing; I just love going out there and doing my best.”