Girls tennis | State tournament preview: It’s a team thing for Greyhounds

Duluth East freshman Shay Callaway didn't exactly remember who beat the Greyhounds in the Section 7AA tennis final the past two years.All she knows is they lost, and in agonizingly close fashion.That is what will make East's appearance in the Cla...

East High School tennis player Shay Calloway delivers on a serve during practice at the Arrowhead Tennis and Athletic Center Thursday morning. Bob King /

Duluth East freshman Shay Callaway didn’t exactly remember who beat the Greyhounds in the Section 7AA tennis final the past two years.
All she knows is they lost, and in agonizingly close fashion.
That is what will make East’s appearance in the Class AA state girls tennis tournament Tuesday through Friday at Baseline Tennis Center in Minneapolis all the sweeter.
“Only one team from the section makes it to state, and the past two years we were not that team,” Callaway said. “It’s always been a battle between Princeton, Elk River and us, and we lost 4-3 both times. So it was very tight, but this year we pulled through.”
This is East’s first state appearance since 2013. Prior to that, the Greyhounds hadn’t made the trip south since 1995, the last of their 11 straight section titles.
Anyone who thinks tennis is an individual sport doesn’t know the Greyhounds.
“That has always been a big focus of us. It’s always team first, sometimes to the fault where with individuals, we don’t figure that out until late in the season,” East coach Lee Kruger said. “It’s not a priority of mine. It’s a bonus for the girls. They know with me, and Meghan Kimber, my lead assistant and former player of mine, it’s all about the team. It’s good they buy into that. They’ve been around me long enough to know that’s the focus.”
Tennis isn’t like state track, where all your teammates can attend the state meet even if they didn’t qualify. With tennis being a midweek tournament, Callaway said only a couple teammates made it last year due to school. The state lineup includes 10 players, but about 15 to 17 Greyhounds will be there.
“It for sure is going to be a lot different having the whole team down there. It will be a whole new experience,” Callaway said.
East’s individual qualifiers, Callaway and her doubles partner Brynne Hauer, and singles player Aili Hietala, will miss at least four days of school, maybe five. But with a team grade-point average of 3.75, these ’Hounds will figure it out.
East (20-3) opens with top-ranked St. Cloud Tech (15-0), led by the Tarrolly sisters, Taylor, Katelyn and Ashley.
“We’re ready,” Callaway said. “We know we’re playing a pretty solid team. We’re going to play as hard as we possibly can, but we’re also going to enjoy the experience of being down there. I’m so excited.”
It will be hard to top the section final in Elk River last week, which by all accounts, was a classic.
For the record, it was Princeton advancing the past two years through the section via those 4-3 scores. East knocked the Tigers out in the semifinals this year. Elk River was the team to beat, having thumped the Greyhounds 6-1 during the regular season.
“As a coach, you’re disappointed, but it’s not always bad to get thumped early in the year,” Kruger said, laughing. “I think (our players) got a little hungrier, and we went back to some basics, worked hard and got better. When we played them in the section final, well, you’ve got two hours to get it done. We set up a lineup we thought we’d be pretty competitive with, but I don’t know if we anticipated it coming down to No. 1 singles. We couldn’t have drawn that up.”
With a state trip hanging in the balance, it all came down to the No. 1 singles match between East eighth-grader Aili Hietala and Elk River junior standout Meagan Brown. With it going to three sets, the other matches finished first, meaning girls from East, Elk River and even Princeton crowded around the court to watch the finale.
Callaway, after quickly winning her No. 2 singles match, became videographer as she recorded the final as players and fans cheered with every point.
“It was so intense,” Callaway said. “I managed to capture video of the final point, and it was so quiet, without a single sound during the entire rally.”
And it was a long rally, but when Brown’s baseline shot went long and was called out, East went ballistic.
Callaway kept recording but it was a lost cause by that point. It’s hard to record the celebration when you’re part of it. Hietala won 6-3, 1-6, 6-2.
The Greyhounds stormed the court, barely allowing the players and coaches to shake hands.
“Everyone jumped up and we started instantly crying,” Callaway said. “We all ran up to Aili. It was a really happy moment for our team, especially after coming so close the last two years. It was very emotional. Aili had been quite calm up to that point. It still hadn’t hit her. The realization didn’t set in until she saw the whole team running toward her.”
Kruger remembers East’s glory days, but he knows he saw something special that day.
“As far as quality of play, that was one of the most intense girls high school matches I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve been around a while,” Kruger said. “They were hitting 30- , 40-shot rallies pretty much every point.”
Kruger knows the Greyhounds probably will never have a run like they had at the turn of the 1990s. Other sports compete for athletes, and Twin Cities schools seem to keep getting bigger and better.  But that’s OK. The Greyhounds will enjoy their state appearances when they get them.
“That’s why when we go to state it means so much to us,” Kruger said. “It’s not old hat. We’d love to say it will become old hat, but I’m sure we’ll fight for it every time we go.”
Virginia opens vs. Roseau
Virginia qualified for the Class A state tournament by winning the Section 7 team title, and opens quarterfinal play at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis.
The Blue Devils are led by Anna Seitz at No. 1 singles, while Ava Warren, Grace Paulsen and Mary Skorich all won singles matches against Pine City in the 7A final.
Virginia’s No. 1 doubles team of Callie Mauston and Alex Saxhaug also qualified in the individual portion of the tournament, which begins Thursday.
Other Northland individuals competing are Eveleth-Gilbert’s Cora Delich in singles and the Golden Bears’ Audrey Delich and Maddi Jankila in doubles.

SIDEBAR: Duluth East’s individual state qualifiers
Aili Hietala
8th grade
State appearances: 2015, 2016
Shay Callaway
State appearances: 2015, 2016
Brynne Hauer
State appearances: 2013 (team), 2014, 2015, 2016

From good stock
Several Duluth East girls tennis players come from athletic backgrounds, including:

  • Brynne Hauer’s father played hockey at Minnesota Duluth and in the NHL
  • Aili Hietala’s mother played tennis in Alabama
  • Elle Christenson’s father played hockey at UMD
  • Josie Humphreys’ mother played tennis at UMD
  • Shay Callaway’s mother played basketball, and her father played football at UMD
  • Ali Kruger’s father played tennis at Gustavus Adolphus
  • Payton Jago’s father played hockey at UMD

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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