Perhaps it was three straight years of getting close to a state championship but falling short. Or the serendipity of having a player from Turkmenistan, of all places, fall into your lap. Or maybe the grit shown by one of the team leaders, playing with no reservations despite struggling with health issues.
Minnetonka boys’ tennis coach Dave Stearns said he knew his team was special. Wednesday, it was.
The Skippers won their first boys’ tennis state championship since 1974, dispatching No. 1 seed East Ridge 5-2 in the semifinals and cruising past No. 2 seed Rochester Century 4-3 in the finals of the Class 2A team tournament at the Baseline Tennis Center in Minneapolis.
“I just can’t say enough about these guys,” said Stearns, whose Skippers finished second twice and third once over the past three seasons. “ ‘Resiliency’ is a good word. These kids refused to lose. One of our concepts this year was tennis self-esteem. There’s no one else out there hitting the ball for them. It’s what’s inside them that wins.”
The Skippers picked up the championship-clinching points at almost exactly the same time. Leading Rochester Century 2-1, the No. 3 doubles team of Brent Maghan and Frank Stich closed out their match just moments ahead of the victory at No. 3 singles by Matthew Kregness. In a span of less than a minute, the lead became an insurmountable 4-1.
“That was cool,” Maghan said. “I could tell we had won when [my teammates] ran over to us and then ran to the other court [where Kregness had won] right after that.”
Senior Dan Wheaton missed most of the season while struggling with asthma. He didn’t play a match until early May and is working his way back to into shape, yet Stearns said his presence coincided with Minnetonka’s success.
“He came back after we lost to Edina, and that was our last loss of the season,” Stearns said. “He makes us so much deeper. Even now, he’s only at about 75 percent, but he was hitting overheads and playing like he’s been playing all season. That kid has guts.”
Also adding depth was the arrival of junior Ahmed Atayev, whose family moved to Minnetonka from his homeland in Turkmenistan barely seven months ago. Atayev, who won all three of his matches at No. 4 singles in the tournament, marveled at how different his life had become in less than a year.
“This is something awesome that I can’t describe,” Atayev said. “I have so many feelings inside for my team, my coach, it’s amazing. It’s more fun than winning an individual match.”
Minnetonka senior Sterling Sibley said near misses the past three years made this title much sweeter.
“Every year, after we lost, we would think we wouldn’t have the chance to win it, so to finally do it, it feels really great,” Sibley said.