When Blake Kuether first picked up tennis in seventh grade, he would watch instructional YouTube videos with his older brother, Brandon, soaking up technical details of the sport.
The videos seem to have helped.
As a sophomore last year, Kuether achieved a rarity for Columbia Heights tennis and reached the state tournament. His coach, Ya Yang, said he thinks it’s the first time that’s happened since the early 1990s.
Getting back to state this spring is within Kuether’s realm of possibility, Yang said.
In a sport where many start taking lessons at a young age, Kuether is somewhat of an oddity.
Despite his parents and brother suggesting he play, Kuether originally eschewed the sport because he thought it was boring.
“I’d watch on TV and it’d be like, ‘Oh, they’re just hitting the ball back and forth,’ but then when you actually start playing, you realize it’s so much more,” Kuether said. “It combines everything you need from other sports — it’s hand-eye coordination, it’s accuracy, it’s skill, it’s technique, it’s speed.”
Despite his initial hesitation, it soon became apparent that he had a knack for the game. He worked his way up through junior varsity in his first year as a seventh-grader, eventually lettering. After a year or so of lessons, he opted to just play with his brother and dad.
Brandon is three grades older than Blake, but having him around has helped the younger Kuether brother thrive.
“We’ve pushed each other in terms of level of play and also we push each others’ buttons a lot, which is necessary for improvement,” Brandon Kuether said. “Both him and I never want to lose to each other, and when we’re playing together, good things happen because every point is a pressure point.”
Yang said coming from a “tennis family” and having that support has helped Kuether improve his skills.
It’s something that’s unique among his teammates — Kuether is the only player on the roster who focuses solely on tennis, playing with his brother and father throughout the offseason.
He decided when he picked up the sport that it would be his only one. Kuether said with Columbia Heights’ enrollment, members of every team cross sports. Partly because of that, expectations for teams aren’t necessarily high.
That’s why Kuether’s trip to state was so memorable. Though he lost in the first round, it was still an accomplishment for the school.
It was also a learning experience for him.
“It gave him insight into how good he really is, how he can go further to the next level, and I think it make him push himself harder,” longtime friend and teammate Michael O’Leary said.
Now, there’s the expectation and pressure of another appearance. He said it’s on his mind every day.
“I like it because it makes me work harder, but … I don’t want to disappoint anybody if [I] don’t make it. But I like it because it makes me work harder and harder every day and focus more,” Kuether said.
It’s the same type of focus he employed while poring over those tennis YouTube videos years ago. It’s also the same type of work ethic that helps him excel in many areas, whether it’s on the tennis court, doing theater or playing drums in his band, “It’s Confidential.”
“He’s pretty passionate about anything that he does,” Brandon Kuether said. “If he finds something that he enjoys doing, he’ll find a way to be good at it right away.”
Betsy Helfand is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.