Do two seventh-graders, albeit very talented ones, equal one three-time state champion? For the Blake boys’ tennis team, that seemingly absurd question is not all that absurd.
The Bears lost an all-time great when Charlie Adams graduated after last season. Adams, now playing at Yale, won three consecutive Class 1A singles championships. Not coincidentally, the Bears won three Class 1A team titles over that span.
With Adams gone, surely the Bears would experience a drop-off. Right?
The way this season has progressed, it’s possible Blake is even better than last year.
“I don’t know if you can say that,” said junior Ben Ingbar, who has moved into Adams’ spot at No. 1 singles. “But I think we’ve stepped up at some of the lower positions and we’re a little less top-heavy. All around, we’re pretty solid.”
Despite suffering its first loss of the season to defending Class 2A champion Mounds View in the semifinals of Edina Invitational on May 7, Blake can make a strong case for being the best team in the state, regardless of class. Ranked No. 1 in Class 1A, the Bears have defeated top Class 2A teams Shakopee (twice), Minnetonka, Edina and Lakeville South. They also dispatched rival Breck, the No. 2-ranked team in Class 1A, 5-2.
“We’re doing our best to rise to the occasion, just trying to be who we are and play our best,” said sophomore Jack Barker, who plays No. 2 singles.
Barker’s words ring ominously for the rest of Class 1A, especially considering coach Ted Warner’s assessment that “we’re still not where we want to be.”
Warner, a former University of Minnesota tennis captain who has coached Blake for the better part of two decades, says he thinks his team’s best tennis is still to come. With no seniors in the starting lineup and only one on the team, Warner has been in full-on teaching mode all spring.
“In doubles, I’m watching the first step, I’m watching the service return, I’m watching how they read their cues and how quickly they’re moving off what’s happening,” Warner said. “That tells me they’re engaged. In singles, it’s about understanding their own game well enough to know their pattern on a bigger point. Stay with the best shot you have. Don’t get cute when there’s pressure on.”
The team has rounded into shape as Warner’s lessons have taken hold. Ingbar has spent all season as the No. 1-ranked singles player in Class 1A, with Barker right behind him at No. 2, yet their games could hardly be more different.
Ingbar plays a power game that he can take to another level when the going gets serious. Barker, who had never played high school tennis until he moved to Minnesota from Greenwich, Conn., before ninth grade, has evolved into a finesse player who infuriates opponents with all manner of spins and slices.
Others have stepped up, such as ninth-graders Chris Hall and Tanner Parr, eighth-grader Joe Mairs and the aforementioned seventh-graders in Benjamin Peterson and Sujit Chepuri.
“Those two are really something,” assistant coach Mike Ach marveled. “To be so good so young, I don’t know where it comes from. Nothing seems to bother them.”
The regular season is nearly over and the postseason set to begin, when the Bears begin their chase for another title in earnest. If they win a fourth consecutive championship, they will become just the second boys’ team in state history to win four consecutive team titles. Rochester did it from 1962 through 1965.
The prospect of putting their stamp on a state championship and tying history is enticing, but, like everything the Bears do, they’re not about to look too far ahead when there’s still work to be done.
“It would be exciting if we get there,” Ingbar said. “I hope we get it. I think we can, but it will be tough just getting through our section. I think the young kids, especially the seventh-graders, have really stepped up. It will be interesting to see how they handle it. I think if we get [to the state tournament], we should be good to go.”