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’Jacks enter playoffs with best chance in 10 years

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The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys tennis team had a chance to win an outright Lake Superior Conference Championship last Wednesday against Hermantown, but the ’Jacks fell 4-3 to finish in what will likely be a three-way tie for the conference championship.

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CEC won at second, third and fourth singles but the undermanned team wasn’t able to come up with the fourth team point that would have guaranteed victory. CEC will likely have to settle for a tie with Duluth Marshall and Hermantown when the results are tabulated.

With top singles player Christian Pritchett out with the flu, the lineup against the Hawks was shuffled. Rob Sobczak, Joey Gotchnik and Ben Tomhave were the singles winners for CEC and the third doubles match went to three sets to make the outcome even closer.

“We were shorthanded,” Coach Steve Rickstrom said. “I don’t think we had a match all year where our best 10 players were out there at the same time.”

That led to frustration.

“I’m confident that if we had our full squad of guys, we’d have won,” Rickstrom said. “We almost beat them playing two men short.”  

Ryan Lind also missed the match with a shoulder injury that is expected to end his season.

The section team tournament began Tuesday night, with the sixth-seeded Lumberjacks defeating 11th and bottom seed North Branch 7-0. CEC will now face Chisago Lakes Area on the road on Wednesday night, and a victory could mean a possible rematch with Duluth East.

“I’ve always said that if this team has its best 10 on the court we can compete with the top dogs,” Rickstrom said. “Elk River is head and shoulders above everyone else as the top-ranked team in the state but if we make the last four we might get another shot at East, which would be fun.”

Individually, the singles and doubles tournaments are filled with strategic maneuvering.  

“Every team except us and Elk River put their best players into the doubles tournament,” Rickstrom said. “The doubles tournament is easily the toughest I’ve seen in 15 years of doing this.”

The best seed for the ’Jacks is the team of Robbie Sobczak and Joey Gotchnik.  

“Robbie and Joey are good, and they are seeded ninth,” Rickstrom said. “It’s a very tough draw.”

The top 11 teams were seeded and the remaining 11 teams were drawn out of a hat, so Rickstrom said there’s no way to know where the other CEC team of Ben Tomhave and Tim Paczynski, both seniors, really stands.

Individually, Pritchett earned the fifth seed in the singles and gets a first-round bye as a result.

“Assuming Christian wins his second-round match he would probably get a singles player from East in the third round with no other upsets,” Rickstrom said.

He also spared a thought for eighth-seed Ryan Willgohs.

“Ryan has the toughest draw of anyone,” Rickstrom said. “He plays Zeke Delain of Elk River first and if he wins, he gets the overall No. 1 seed, Toby Boyer of Forest Lake.”

Any CEC teams or players who survive to the last four will return to Princeton on Memorial Day for the finals.

“I honestly think this group of kids has as good a chance of winning as any I have had since Nate Wood’s group and that goes back about 11 years,” Rickstrom said. “I have a lot of faith in our guys.”

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