Struggling 'Jacks hope to make playoff noise
The season after success is achieved is always a hard one, and the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys tennis team is learning that fact this spring.
After two straight trips to the section finals, the 'Jacks are in a rebuilding process, with Tuesday's 5-2 loss at home to Aitkin finishing the team's dual meet schedule with a 7-8 record.
"It's better than that, or it should be," coach Derek Johnson said. "We haven't been blown out of matches, we've had a lot of close 4-3 and 5-2 matches where if a couple of matches turn out differently, we win." CEC lost three matches by 4-3 scores this spring.
None of the seven matches against the Gobblers wound up going three sets. Wins came at second singles through Daniel Stevens — who beat Aitkin's Nathan Hagestuen 6-3, 6-3 — and at fourth singles, where Dennis Genereau defeated Hunter Westerlund 6-2, 6-1.
Johnson points to Stevens as a real bright spot for the team. The senior has gone 14-1 at second singles this season.
"You know you're going to get a win when you put him in there," Johnson said. "That is a great feeling and I'm very happy with the season he's had."
The team has only two seniors — Stevens and Kobe Kadelbach — and Johnson said those two players are imparting what they know to the younger team members.
"They are showing everyone else what CEC tennis is about and how to be successful," Johnson said. "They are doing a great job leading the younger players."
The team has 19 players out in grades 7-12, and since it takes 10 for a varsity match, those numbers are just fine with the coach.
Five of the players are freshmen or younger, including ninth-grader Cal Pertler, who played varsity third doubles with junior Bryan Broten on Tuesday.
Despite the team's relative inexperience, Johnson believes the team can make some noise in the section tournament, which begins Thursday at Hermantown. CEC earned the fifth seed in the event and travels to play the fourth-seeded Hawks.
The teams met May 5 with Hermantown winning 4-3 and Johnson expects a similarly tight matchup on Thursday.
"We're pretty evenly matched," Johnson said. "We played them very tough during the season and we expect to go there for a hard-fought match in the playoffs, too."
That said, Johnson believes there's reason for optimism. "There's no reason we can't make some noise," he said. "If we do those small things we need to do there isn't any reason we can't win Thursday and get to Saturday."
Saturday's section semifinals and finals are scheduled to be played in Hibbing, with the individual tournament to be played next week.
"We haven't made any decisions on who will play in the individual tournament," Johnson said. "We're going to wait to see how things shake out in the team tournament first."