After years of dominating the Minneapolis City Conference, Minneapolis Washburn boys' tennis coach Ryan Hoag had high expectations for the Millers last season.
"If there was ever a year when we were going to push for a state championship, it would have been last year," said Hoag, a Washburn graduate who played college football at Gustavus and was the last pick of the 2003 NFL draft. "We were loaded with seniors and had elite level talent."
Alas, COVID-19 hit hard and the 2020 season never happened.
Hoag wasn't sure what to expect going into this season. The Millers had won eight consecutive conference championships and hadn't lost a conference match since April 20, 2011. But roster turnover was high and experience scarce. Was the end of their enviable streak in sight?
Nope. Not by a long shot.
The Millers completed the regular season with a program-best 19-2 record. Their conference winning streak remains intact and they recently clinched their ninth consecutive conference championship.
"These kids have bought into everything we've asked them to do," Hoag said. "They've embraced every minute more than any team I've coached in 13 years. They're not a bunch of highly touted tournament-playing kids, but they listen, they're super-coachable and they want it more. That goes a long way in high school sports these days."
Washburn's two losses were to pretty formidable foes: Class 2A, No. 1 Edina and No. 5 Mounds View, the last team to win a Class 2A championship in 2019.
"And that by a score of 4-3," he said. "These kids have done what takes to extract every little bit of ability out of themselves. Mounds View walked in here expecting to roll over us and it was 3-3 near the end."
Hoag credits his three senior captains – No. 1 singles player Luke Little and doubles specialists Henry Bastian and Luca Cordova Stuart – as catalysts for the team's all-in commitment.
"There's never a complaint. They come to me and ask if they can have a lesson before practice or if they can stay after 45 minutes. If I'm hard on them, they don't mind. They do whatever it takes,'' Hoag said.
Little, in particular, epitomizes what this year's team stands for.
"He's been with the team since seventh grade and now he's the guy everyone looks up to," Hoag said. "He's our vocal leader, like a second coach on the court."
Washburn is ranked No. 6 in Class 2A this season but seeded No. 3 in tough Section 6, behind No. 1 seed Edina and No. 2 Blake, both perennial powers. That makes the Millers' chances of making the state tournament slim. Hoag says it's not about where his team ends up, it's how it got there.
"We control what we can control. Our goal is to give full effort every time we take the court and have more fun that the other team," Hoag said. "And this has been the most enjoyable season we've had. It's been special."