Attending a Fridley boys’ tennis match means hearing players yell, “Go Tigers,” after hard-fought points whether won or lost.
A team that prides itself on staying positive and vocal has good reason to be both this season. For the first time in 35 years, Fridley qualified for the state tournament. The Tigers open play against Rochester Lourdes at noon Tuesday at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis.
“When I heard it’s been 35 years, I got a feeling of pride for what we’ve done,” said junior Nic Fite, the Tigers’ No. 2 singles player. “We will go down in school history as the team that broke that streak.”
The breakthrough was several years in the making. Coach Anthony Branitski has directed his teams to 10 consecutive winning seasons. And before winning the section title this spring, the Tigers reached the final match three out of the past four years.
“We put pressure on ourselves to get this done as a team,” Branitski said. “This was a group of players willing to be coached, and they really supported each other.”
Beginning with winter workouts at Public Indoor Tennis in nearby Spring Lake Park, players sensed this would be their year. A opening-season loss to St. Louis Park “set a tempo for tough competition,” Branitski said. A 6-1 victory against St. Anthony on April 18 served as a section final preview. And a 5-2 victory against Holy Angels on May 9 helped instill confidence while securing a Tri-Metro Conference title.
Senior Jacob Roubal, who plays No. 1 singles, charted his own progress against Holy Angels. A year ago, he needed three sets to win a grueling 2½ hour match. This year, he won in straight sets 6-1, 6-1.
In the section tournament, Fridley dispatched defending champion Columbia Heights in the semifinals and then won a 5-2 rematch against St. Anthony.
Gabe Allen and Alex Herlofsky, playing No. 2 doubles, clinched Fridley’s first state tournament appearance since 1982. Fittingly, Herlofsky is the most vocal player on a loud team. He and Allen were unaware they secured the match until Branitski used a fourth finger to count the team’s point total.
Fite was battling through his match at No. 2 singles when Branitski approached him during a change over.
“He said, ‘Alex and Gabe took their match. We won,’ ” Fite said. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah, we just did it.’ ”
Energized by the news, Fite won his match in a third-set tiebreaker.
Beyond their grit and camaraderie, the Tigers are talented. Roubal and Fite paired up at doubles for the individual section tournament and won the title in three sets against teammates Luke Coelho and Leland Salter. Both doubles teams advance to the state tournament.
In the singles draw, junior Ben Stevenson won the section title and improved to 18-0 this spring.
“Our guys have a lot of heart for tennis so we walked out of there feeling super happy,” Roubal said.
A team banquet last week celebrated what was to come rather than the season that was.
“The energy was different from any other year,” Coelho said. “This team has done so much more.”