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The Contender

Last Friday, Hermantown's Leah Baron did what she believed couldn't be done, beating Marshall's top-ranked tennis star Alli Ritts, 6-4. 5-7 and 6-3. "I never thought I could beat Alli," Baron said. "I know that to get to state, she's my big rival...

Last Friday, Hermantown's Leah Baron did what she believed couldn't be done, beating Marshall's top-ranked tennis star Alli Ritts, 6-4. 5-7 and 6-3.
"I never thought I could beat Alli," Baron said. "I know that to get to state, she's my big rival, so it was a huge self-esteem builder."
Baron, a compact and powerful player, said that the match was more of a mental triumph than a physical one.
"I was more confident of myself going into it," she said. "I had practiced really hard that week, and I think I was more focused on technique."
That recipe worked for the Hawks' junior, whose win over Ritts was much more than just another victory.
Northern Minnesota's queen of high school tennis Kara Smiley from Greenway of Coleraine is the undisputed number one player in the region. Marshall's Ritts had been widely recognized as the number two player, with Baron lurking just behind. Only two players qualify for the Minnesota State Tennis Tournament out of Section 7, and Baron has virtually conceded that Smiley will be one of them.
That means that only one state bid will be up for grabs, with the winner going on and the loser going home. That being the case, Baron does not want to face Smiley in the first round of the section tournament, and Friday's win helped make a Baron-Smiley first round match-up unlikely thanks to the section's seeding process.
That's a relief to Baron, who is determined to qualify for state before she graduates. In the short term, however, she's just hoping to continue doing what she did against Ritts, which, from a mental standpoint, isn't always easy for the energetic, but sometimes distracted Baron.
On Tuesday, she took the court again, this time against Denfeld's Marie Gunderson. Baron cruised to an 6-2, 6-1 win, which improved her overall record to 9-4. But, afterward she admitted that her focus wasn't where it needs to be to beat the best.
Occasionally, her smashing winners make her look like a lock for the state tournament, but, she's also prone to momentary lapses of attention that slow her ascent to the next level.
As the 2000 season creeps closer to tournament-time, Baron is hoping to have less of those dispassionate moments.
"I'll probably try thinking back to Alli's match, and hopefully that will help me get my mind back into it," she said.
There's a sense of urgency in her voice, however, as she discusses the mental aspects of her game. Baron realizes that she's not a first-year varsity player anymore, and that she's got more than enough experience to succeed now.
By seventh grade, she was playing junior varsity in Hibbing. Then her family moved to Hermantown, and in eighth grade, she found herself playing for the varsity team as a Hawk. She started out as a doubles player, but by the end of the season she was not only playing singles for Hermantown, she was playing as her team's number one player.
"I've played it ever since," said Baron. "I think it's prepared me for now. I've learned that when you get on the court, it's anyone's game. I've also learned that I have to focus."
That focus, to Baron, means more than just concentration. It also involves emotional control, which she says is a strength of her game, although sometimes it eludes her.
"I try not to get mad when I play, because it doesn't seem to help me," she said.
But that's not to say that she isn't expressive on the court. Her expressiveness, however, is more of a choice than a reaction. Often it will be subtle, like a smirk or an extra practice swing following a bad return, but it's always controlled. It's that developing mental toughness that Baron hopes will take her to new heights for a second time this season.
"My win over Alli got me pumped, because now I'm really excited for sections," she said. "I really want to show people that I can play good tennis."
Of course, she's already done that. In fact, during matches like the one she played against Ritts, she showed people that she can play exceptional tennis. The only thing she has yet to do is show people that she can play consistently exceptional tennis, which is precisely what she's hoping last week's win over Ritts will help her begin to do.

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