Clad in black sweatpants and leaning casually against a fence in between matches, Forest Lake senior Toby Boyer barely warrants a glance, looking no different from any other tennis player waiting for his match to start. In fact, if he wasn’t arguably the state’s best singles player, he might not get noticed at all.
Which is just fine with him. Much like his older brother Dusty, the only four-time singles champion in boys’ state tournament history, Toby isn’t much for the trappings and attention that go along with winning. He’s just doing something he loves and he happens to do it better than most everyone else.
The time has come to prove it. Boyer has made three consecutive Class 2A individual finals — doubles as a freshman in 2012, singles in 2013 and 2014 — but lost all three.
With the boys’ tennis section playoffs beginning this week, his last chance to do something many thought would have happened long ago, win a state singles title, is approaching fast.
“Yeah, a few years ago, I thought I would have won at least one by now,” he said.
Blessed with exceptional hand-eye coordination and a fluid athleticism, success in sports came naturally for him. Both brothers were home-schooled at their home in Ham Lake but played youth sports in the Forest Lake district.
“We had them in every sport we could,” said his father, David.
It wasn’t long before Toby began to stand out from others his same age. Before long, he was considered one of the top youth basketball and baseball players in his age group.
“You could see it when he was 2 years old,” said his mother, Gina, who played college basketball at the University of North Dakota. “We’d bring a ball and bat out in the yard and toss it to him and he could hit it every time. You don’t find many kids that age who can do that.”
Both Toby and Dusty took to tennis quickly. Their innate skills and ability to focus contributed to their rapid improvement. Having each other around didn’t hurt, either, even if it did lead to some all-out battles.
“They were competitive in everything,” David said.
Dusty agreed. “Yeah, there are some holes in our walls from thrown pingpong paddles.”
The brothers’ paths diverged when each hit eighth grade. Dusty quit other sports to focus on tennis full time. That choice paid off handsomely with his record-setting string of championships.
Toby, however, wasn’t willing to give up other sports. He loved being a part of a team and still harbored dreams of playing basketball in college. Tennis was clearly his primary sport — he trained regularly in the summer at the Life Time Fitness Club in Fridley with a veritable who’s who of youth tennis in Minnesota. But giving up other sports was too much too ask.
“I loved baseball and basketball,” Toby said. “I love playing on teams.”
Said Gina: “Toby never thinks about things like how good he is. He really just wanted to be one of the guys.”
Until last spring, that was enough.
Boyer tried to be a part-time tennis player and still win state titles, but the game has changed so much in the past 20 years — improved instruction, better training and a proliferation of national tournaments — that being a championship-level player requires a year-round commitment.
Still, he nearly pulled it off, falling in three sets in the finals in each of the last two seasons.
“You just can’t play tennis part time and win anymore,” said Greg Patchin, Forest Lake tennis coach. “He just didn’t have the experience behind him to win the tough points.”
At one time, Toby seemed destined to have a career similar to that of his brother. Now a senior and with the section playoffs beginning this week, he knows his last chance to win a title is at hand.
“I knew I had to focus on tennis,” Boyer said. “I gave up baseball. I had to get tougher. I had to get more consistent.”
That lack of consistency had been his downfall in his two singles finals losses. His talent was never in question. His ability to summon that talent when necessary was.
“He’d make a couple of great shots, then miss a couple,” Patchin said.
With just one year left to reach one of his lifelong goals, Toby finally made the decision to be all tennis, all the time.
“I used to come into the season unprepared, trying to play catch up,” he said. “This season, I went all out to see what I could do if I committed myself.”
His decision to concentrate on tennis has turned out to be the right choice. He claims his tennis has never been better.
“I’m not hitting and missing as much,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger, a lot more mature. What’s funny is that I love tennis more now than I ever have. It feels fresh to me.”
His improvement has been obvious to anyone who has seen him play.
“He’s the top player in the state,” said Suzie Heideman, coach of 2A East Ridge, a Suburban East Conference rival. “What impresses me is how selective he is. He sets up points and waits until he gets the right shot. He doesn’t just go for it. I’ve been trying to get my players to learn from him.”
Toby’s talent is such that he has earned a tennis scholarship to join Dusty at Nebraska. Toby is confident that he is ready to add to the family legacy.
“Do I have any regrets? I kind of wonder if I had quit basketball earlier if I would be a different player,” he said. “But I can’t do anything about that. The goal now is to win state. I think I’m ready to do that. That’s a pretty cool championship to have.”