'Jacks serve up season-opening sweep
One would think that being an in-your-face, rip-them-down wrestler might lack the necessary touch and finesse required for a tennis match.
But after watching Cloquet's Daniel Stevens, it doesn't take long to see it's a no problem.
In fact, the Lumberjack senior has caused more problems for his opponents this year. While the 6-foot, 175-pounder qualified for his first state wrestling meet in March, one month later he helped the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys tennis team ease by Eveleth-Gilbert 7-0 in the program's season opener Tuesday at the sunny Cloquet High School tennis courts.
"It's not the natural combination that you normally see," said Stevens of being a wrestler and a tennis player. "I don't know very many of them myself."
Stevens began his rare combination of wrestling and tennis in eighth grade, when he joined both Lumberjack high school programs. While he slowly but surely succeeded on the mats, third-year CEC tennis coach Derek Johnson also said Stevens put in plenty of time to hone his game on the courts this past summer.
The results were evident Tuesday, as Stevens didn't drop a single game in his first set, sweeping Noah Sandnas 6-0, 6-3 in No. 2 singles.
"He moves well on the court and has a lot of touch," said Johnson of Stevens, who is the team captain along with the only other senior, Kobe Kadelbach. "He has a nice soft volley, but can also be firm and put away the ball. He's got a good stroke, is a good all-around player and is just a great kid."
Yet, results like Stevens' were common across the board for the Lumberjacks Tuesday. All four singles matches won in straight sets, as did one of their doubles, and two of the doubles won in three, one in a 7-3 tiebreak.
In layman's terms, Johnson's boys — dressed in purple caps, purple polos and black shorts along with newly purchased Hawaiian warm-up shirts — shut out the visiting and traditionally-strong Golden Bears.
"I think we were all confident we could win, but nobody expected a sweep," Stevens said. "It was a great day."
CEC victors along with Stevens and Kadelbach in No. 2 and 3 singles included Peter Tomhave at No. 1 and Dennis Genereau at No. 4. None of the quartet lost a set, sweeping all matches 2-zip.
Meanwhile in doubles, the No. 1 pairing of Kade Bender and Landon Langenbrunner were winners in consecutive sets. For the pair of rookie players, their 6-1, 6-1 victory was impressive, but not shocking for the two multi-sport athletes.
"It was their first time in a varsity tennis match," said Johnson of his talented tandem.
Also in doubles, No. 2 Bryan Broten and Drew Doesken won the closest match of the evening in the tiebreak after being down late. No. 3 Ryan Fredrickson and Cal Pertler also prevailed in three sets.
"All in all, I was really impressed," added Johnson. "It was a good feeling, not only for the coaches, but the kids, too.
"I think they kind of surprised themselves."
That's understandable, as Johnson saw eight seniors graduate from last year's squad that lost 6-1 to Hibbing-Chisholm in the Section 7A final. The year before that, CEC was also clipped by the Bluejackets 4-3 in the final. Those two seasons — oh so close to state — have been the furthest the Lumberjacks' program has ever gotten.
That success has helped build Johnson's crew. They are having fun, learning and continuing to win, regardless of age or experience.
"He's an unbelievable coach," said Kadelbach of the 27-year-old Johnson, who is also assisted by Tom Proulx, Jim Tomhave and Nick Lind. "I've come so far. From last year, having never picked up a tennis racquet, to now being the captain and so much more improved. He just keeps working with me and trying to make me into the best player that I can be."
That's why having almost a dozen of their 24 players — or nearly half — as first-years, Johnson isn't fazed, but rather opportunistic. One would maybe be crazy to think CEC could get back to the final this May, but don't tell them that.
Especially after Tuesday's sweeping performance.
"You never know what's going to happen late in the season," Johnson said. "Hopefully there are good things to come."
Stevens feels the same. In his final prep season, he'll look to lead the team to their first-ever state meet.
And for the not so ordinary wrestling tennis player, it would quite the way to go out. Two senior seasons. Two state tournaments.
"That's the goal," said Stevens.
He and the Lumberjacks are off to a good start.