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CEC boys in the midst of 'Hell Week'

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Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys tennis Coach Steve Rickstrom calls this week “Hell Week.” But it could turn into heaven for his Lumberjacks, who can win the Lake Superior Conference championship with two key victories this week.

The team may play as many as seven matches this week due to backlogs from weather, but wins in two — against Superior on Tuesday and Hermantown on Friday — will give the ’Jacks their first LSC title in memory.

That’s due in part to another “first in memory” moment — a 4-3 win over traditional powerhouse Duluth Marshall on Monday night.

“That was a nice little win,” Rickstrom said. “We talked about it on the bus ride home. It was the first win we’ve had in boys over Marshall since I can remember. We’ve beaten them in girls a couple of times but just haven’t gotten over that hump with the boys.”

The ’Jacks split the singles matches and won two of the three doubles matches to earn the win. In singles, No. 2 Robbie Sobczak beat Max Bartell 6-4, 6-0 and No. 3 Joey Gotchnik beat Dave Goltz 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5).

In doubles, the first team of Ryan Lind and Ryan Willgohs beat Luke Dow and Jack Kronzer 6-2, 7-5 and the second team of Tom Paczynski and Ben Tomhave defeated Kyle McKinzie and Mark Skramstad 6-3, 0-6, 6-4.

The win will bolster confidence in the team.

“We’re excited, we played well and got the win that will give us confidence going forward,” Rickstrom said. “But I’m actually more proud of the team we took to Virginia.”

On May 1, Rickstrom took what he called a squad of “misfits” to Virginia and lost 6-1 to the Blue Devils, who are ranked fourth in the state.

“Christian Pritchett was out of town for a family graduation and we had other guys missing for various reasons,” Rickstrom said. “But we competed hard, played very hard and we fought it out.”

CEC’s team point came at third singles, where Sobczak defeated Ricky Sipala 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-3.

“We had one of our beginning seventh-graders playing varsity doubles for that match,” Rickstrom said. “Ryan Lind played first singles and he hadn’t played there before.  That’s how short we were, but we fought and competed. I’ve never been so happy with a team after a match.”

Yet the win over Marshall has the team thinking about a conference championship and also thinking big.

“The better you get, the more you try to compare yourselves to the best teams,” Rickstrom said. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”

The ’Jacks played Hermantown last Friday and with the team score tied 3-3 and Pritchett absent, the deciding match was rained out.

“Couldn’t do anything about it,” Rickstrom said. “We play them for double points on Friday and we know what they’ve got, and Christian wasn’t there.”

Rickstrom is extremely proud of his players’ effort.

“We’re playing the top teams right now and I talk specifically about the Virginia and Marshall kids,” he said. “They play most of the winter and those kids have had a full spring of practice. Some of the Marshall kids have memberships at indoor clubs. We’ve had three outdoor practices and three indoor practices for the entire season, so to say we are proud of these kids is an understatement. We’re competing at mid-season form when we really are just starting.”

Rickstrom notes the growth in his program is reflected by the attitude of Duluth East, which is not a LSC member in tennis.

“They didn’t want LSC matches,” Rickstrom said. “Now, they want to play us twice. That’s an example of our development over the last few years.”

The only day the team isn’t scheduled to play this week is Wednesday, when team pictures are scheduled. Otherwise, it’s “Hell Week” for Rickstrom.

After Tuesday’s match, the team is scheduled for a doubleheader against Grand Rapids and Hibbing on Thursday afternoon in Grand Rapids. Then after Friday’s match against Hermantown, the team will play in a four-team event on Saturday in Cambridge.

“Our goal is to win all seven,” Rickstrom said. “I think we can do it, which would be unprecedented in the history of our program.”

The right two wins, though, will make the ’Jacks champions.