Maple Grove's youthful singles corps has the tennis team heading to the state meet.
May 21 was a tennis anniversary that J.C. Lippold preferred to forget.
Playing for Champlin Park in 1999, Lippold found himself pressed into duty at No. 3 singles in the section finals against Mounds View after injuries shook up the lineup. Lippold and the Rebels lost.
Fast forward 13 years. Lippold faced those same Mustangs on the same May date at the same location, Irondale High School. Only this time, he was coaching Maple Grove (22-2), the top seed in Class 2A, Section 5.
So it was only fitting that the Crimson won the afternoon's final two singles matches to edge Mounds View 4-3 and earn its first state tournament appearance.
Trailing 3-2 after Mounds View swept all three doubles points, Maple Grove's hopes rested on seventh-grader Sam Hochberger at No. 3 singles and freshman Rory Calabria at the No. 4 spot.
Hochberger won his match, casting all eyes on Calabria. Every member of the Crimson team sat watching Calabria's three-set battle, though no one told him a trip to the state tournament was at stake.
"I said in the huddle before the match, 'If it's 0-6 or 6-0, the whole team is going to be behind whoever is left,'" senior Sam Endres said. "We want to play free tennis because you're confident knowing the team is behind you."
That support proved invaluable for the Crimson's youthful singles corps. Sophomore Zachary Adkins, eighth-grader Charlie Adkins, Hochberger and Calabria swept the four singles positions. They used veteran moxie to trip up Mounds View a year after the Mustangs romped 7-0 in the section final.
"The seventh- and ninth-graders, even with the nerves, they knew they had their teammates out there," Lippold said. "We like crying, we like laughing. It's a family."
Consistency in the lineup fueled season-long success. Lippold left it intact for sections and won't change going forward.
"This will be what we'll play all the way through state," he said. "We're confident with it. Every spot has at least 20 wins on the season."
For all their success, the Crimson learned great lessons in loss. A 5-2 setback to No. 1 ranked Elk River and a 6-1 loss against a strong Wayzata team included several moral victories. Four points against Wayzata were decided by three-set matches.
"Numbers can't always tell the quality of the match," Calabria said. "It was really big to see we could have gotten another three matches off them. It told us we can do this."
Against Mounds View, the team went to three sets at three positions and snapped the Mustangs' streak of 10 consecutive state tournament appearances. "You saw today that we were ready to play in those long, close matches," Lippold said.
Before that match, Maple Grove's key victories came in scrimmages against Minnetonka and Hopkins. The Crimson won each 6-1, instilling confidence.
"Knowing we could hang with the big dogs was really inspiring," Endres said.
Asked if he thought Maple Grove could triumph against Mounds View without winning a singles point, Endres didn't flinch.
"I would have still gone into this match with confidence," said Endres, who played first doubles against Mounds View. "I feel like every match this season we've had a good chance to win at every spot."
David La Vaque 612-673-7574