In a northern Minnesota spring, athletic teams take little victories where they can find them. Such is the case with the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys tennis team.

Last year, the players were hip-deep in snow almost to the beginning of the season. This year, the players were only hip-deep in snow until late March.

"That means something," coach Derek Johnson said. "That means there's time to practice."

A short-season program like boys tennis often doesn't have the time to prepare players, especially new ones, for the rigors of a varsity season. That's why a fast start is very important, especially for a growing program like CEC's.

About 30 players are eventually expected to come out for the team in grades 7-12.

"We get about four to six new players in the upper grades every year and about five to six new middle schoolers, so we are keeping up the numbers," Johnson said.

Chief among those players is senior Peter Tomhave, who reached state last year in singles and is expected to be one of the top players in the area.

"He's been with us since seventh grade and he's an incredible presence and leader for us," Johnson said.

Seniors Dennis Genereau and Kade Bender also provide veteran leadership.

"We've had times when the coaches are doing something else and we see Dennis and Kade leading drills," Johnson said. "That's a great example of the kind of leaders these players are."

The team's first match is Thursday, April 4, at Cambridge, and the team will have had exactly three outdoor practices before playing matches that count. And of those, only about one-third of the players were able to attend.

"It was spring break last week, so we were missing about two-thirds of the team," Johnson said. "So we go with the kids who have some ground strokes in and who have been hitting outside."

Johnson noted that the team opened with Cambridge last year and had an almost entirely different lineup by the end of the season.

"Kids improve; we find out about kids and we find ways to get them in the lineup if they deserve it," Johnson said. "But we looked a lot different at the end of the season than we did at the beginning."

The team's first home match is scheduled for Tuesday, April 9, against Eveleth-Gilbert - of course, weather permitting.

"At least we're on the court earlier this year," Johnson said. "The kids are excited to be playing and I'm excited to see what they can do."