After 608 victories against just 17 total losses, and 23 state championships vigorously punctuated by a state-record 19 in a row, it's nearly impossible to believe that Steve Paulsen once thought he might not be the right person to be Edina girls' tennis coach.
Paulsen, who stepped down as coach last fall after the Hornets won their 23rd team title in his 28 seasons, is the Star Tribune Girls' Team Coach of the Year.
Considering Edina's unparalleled success during his tenure, it's an honor for which Paulsen often would have been suited.
"Looking back on it, it's pretty remarkable," Paulsen said. "Hopefully, we've done it the right way, but the record is pretty remarkable.
It's a career Paulsen wasn't completely sure he wanted to explore. He'd been the boys' tennis head coach at Edina since 1988. The success of the girls' tennis team, which had a been riding a nice, long streak of state titles, dwarfed that of the boys.
He took the job anyway, in 1992. Edina proceeded to go four consecutive years without a title.
"When I first took over, they had won 14 [state championships] in a row, and I was pretty apprehensive about jumping into that, to be perfectly honest," Paulsen said recently with his familiar, easygoing smile. "And then we lost four in a row. Somehow, I survived in my job."
The breakthrough season came in 1997, when the Paulsen and the Hornets returned to their championship-winning ways. They remained there year after year after year, until 2016, when the streak was broken by Mahtomedi in the Class 2A semifinals.
Paulsen's reaction to that loss speaks volumes about his approach to coaching. No regrets, no wistful "if-onlys." To Paulsen, success has always been about helping kids and building relationships.
"Even that match we lost to Mahtomedi, that was an unbelievable match," he said. "There've been so many great matches."
Last October, the Edina team won Paulsen's final match, defeating Minnetonka for the Class 2A championship at Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota. The Hornets had defeated Blake, another top rival, in the semifinals. Beating two such strong programs was a fitting way to close a career, he remembered.
"Two great matches, Blake and then Minnetonka, and they came down to what is truly the essence of high school tennis is all about," he said. "The kids on both sides were great. It doesn't get any better than that for me, just watching them compete."
That falls directly in line with what Paulsen hopes people will recall about his time at Edina.
"Hopefully, people will remember the team as competing the right way," he said. "It's not easy to smile when you're under pressure, but it's about character and integrity. We preached that daily to the kids. We really tried to instill in the kids those qualities."