Cloquet tennis team has its eyes on the prize

It's a quote attributed to Vince Lombardi, who once said that players who scored touchdowns should "act like they've been there before." Obviously, it's a different sport, but the Cloquet boys tennis team has been "there" -- as in, the section ch...

Cloquet's Ryan Willgohs returns a forehand hit to Isaac Hiner of Hermantown Friday. Matthew Moses/

It’s a quote attributed to Vince Lombardi, who once said that players who scored touchdowns should “act like they’ve been there before.”

Obviously, it’s a different sport, but the Cloquet boys tennis team has been “there” - as in, the section championship match - before, and now will be favored to go back after earning a richly-deserved top seed in the upcoming Section 7A tournament Tuesday.

Coach Derek Johnson’s team ran the table against section opponents - including wins over Hibbing, Virginia and Duluth Marshall - to improve to 14-1 on the season before Thursday’s playoff opener against Duluth Denfeld.

The wins over the Blue Devils (4-3 on May 5) and Hilltoppers (5-2 on May 9) complete a remarkable trifecta for the team. It’s believed this is the first Cloquet team ever to beat Hibbing, Virginia and Marshall in the same season.

“The kids deserved the No. 1 seed,” coach Derek Johnson said. “They have worked extremely hard and they didn’t lose in the section all season. They ought to be first, and they are first.”


Monday’s Minnesota Tennis Coaches’ Association poll had the team ranked sixth in the state in Class A, behind traditional private school powers Blake and Breck, St. Peter, Foley and Crookston.

“We get such great leadership from our seniors,” Johnson added. “We are playing very well as a team now and everybody is locked in.”

Perhaps no one is more “locked in” than senior Robbie Sobczak, who was named the school’s male Athlete of the Year after winning nine letters this school year - only five coming in sports.

“I just can’t tell you what Robbie means to this team,” Johnson said. “Such a humble, great kid, always encouraging everyone. The younger players all look up to him and he even takes time out from his matches, while he’s playing them, to encourage someone else who has done something well. His commitment to team is incredible and he will be the first to tell you that he is where he is now because of his teammates.”

The senior-dominated Lumberjacks are now poised for a playoff run, which will begin on Thursday afternoon at home against Denfeld, a 7-0 Lumberjack victim earlier in the season.

“Everyone is ready,” Johnson said. “The seniors are ready to work harder than ever and they are the leaders of this group. There is commitment.”

The team’s only loss was to Duluth East on April 28, but the Greyhounds are in Section 7AA and thus won’t face the ’Jacks in the playoffs.

The team has a Wednesday makeup match against Superior to play before starting the playoffs the next day against the Hunters.


“I like their chances”, Johnson said. “But the thing I like about these kids is that not only are they a nice team, they’re a team of nice kids.”

The team received the MSHSL Silver Academic Award this spring and has four players who received an individual Gold academic award.

“Everywhere we go, we hear about how good our kids are to the opponents and to each other,” Johnson said. “They are great in the classroom and they’re good young men as well. That’s something not every program can claim.”

But now these young men are on a mission: to avenge last season’s section final loss to Hibbing and reach state for the first time. The semifinals are scheduled for Saturday at 9 a.m. at Hibbing’s Lincoln Elementary school with the finals scheduled for 1 p.m. - meaning a rematch of last season’s final would take place on the Bluejackets’ home court.

But no matter, according to Johnson.

“I think they can do it if they play to their potential,” he said.

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