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Prep girls tennis: East's Hietala aims for return to the top

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Duluth East’s Aili Hietala returns the ball during Saturday’s match against Virginia. Hietala is seeking her fifth consecutive state tournament berth. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Aili Hietala saw her progression toward the top of the Minnesota high school girls tennis ladder halted at last year’s state tournament.

Then a Duluth East sophomore, Hietala entered the tournament seeded second in Class AA.

In her three previous state appearances, she had lost in the first round, then the quarterfinals and semifinals.

But her march toward an expected finals match was ended by St. Cloud Tech’s Ashley Tarrolly in a third-set tiebreaker in the quarterfinals.

A year older now, at 16, Hietala has used that disappointment to her advantage heading into her junior season.

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“It’s always super hard to lose, but I used it to get me more determined to do better this year,” she said before a recent match. “And I know who I have to (beat).”

Defending champion Nicole Copeland of Edina is a senior and Tarrolly is a junior. Throw in semifinalist Zoe Adkins, a Maple Grove sophomore, and the path is littered with top contenders.

East coach Lee Kruger likes what he sees from his No. 1 singles player.

“Aili had some disappointment, and she took some time off and refocused and is ready to go,” Kruger said.

Hietala, a noted baseliner in years past, said she is adapting her game to become more well-rounded.

“Every year I am getting a little more aggressive,” she said.

Hietala spent most of the summer training but did play one United States Tennis Association U-16 zonal tournament in Dallas.

In her pre-high school days, Hietala had the option to leave school and play more on the junior circuit, though she said it wasn’t a difficult decision to stay. Her mother, Heather, was a Duluth East tennis standout who went on to play at NCAA Division I Arkansas State, while her father coaches Greyhounds football.

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“I could have decided to not play high school, but I’ve always known that I wanted to play high school tennis and I love playing it with my best friends,” she said.

“There’s two ways to look at it, and I don’t know which one is better,” Kruger said of top-end talent choosing between juniors or high school.

Rival teams haven’t benefited by Hietala’s decision. Opposing coaches, however, appreciate her demeanor on the court.

“My favorite thing about her is that you can’t tell if she is winning or losing. She could be down 6-0 or up 6-0,” Virginia coach Jeff Mauston said. “She’s a classy kid. She’s one of those kids who you can tell comes from a family of coaches and athletes. She just gets it.”

Hietala isn’t the only Greyhound aiming for a state berth.

East is loaded with 14 of its top 15 players returning. Seniors Shay Callaway (No. 2 singles) and Maggie Payette and Saijal Vacek (doubles) and freshman Annabelle Humphreys (doubles) lead the experienced group.

“Our team is super strong and has a good chance at making it to state,” Hietala said.

Elsewhere in Section 7AA:

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  • Duluth Denfeld returns sophomore Kaitlyn MacMillan at No. 1 singles after she won a handful of matches as a freshman. Senior co-captains Aly Freberg and Maddie Kitziger are at No. 2 and 3 singles for the second year in a row.

  • Cloquet-Esko-Carlton senior captains Michelle Jokinen, Lauren Maslowski and Lexi Norrgard lead in the top singles and doubles spots.

  • Grand Rapids-Greenway returns upperclassmen Kalei Dowell, Jordan Troumbly, Eva Kangas, Nicole Ramirez and Hailey Lafrenier along with a bumper crop of underclassmen from a team that qualified for the section semifinals.

  • Hermantown returns senior co-captain Drew Grey, who will transition to No. 1 singles. Others seniors include Layla Maki and Eiley Kuhlmey.

SECTION 7A Virginia seeks eight-peat

Defending Section 7A champion Virginia returns 13 of its top 15 girls, including its top six.

Seniors Anna Seitz and Ava Warren are slotted at the top singles positions, though they played No. 1 doubles together Saturday against East.

Juniors Mary Skorich, Anneka Lundgren, Jayda Westerbur and Jacie Smith all have been on varsity for several years and participated in multiple state tournaments.

“I told my coach this might be the most talented team I have been a part of,” Seitz said.

The Blue Devils have made seven straight state tournament appearances as a team, the last six under Mauston.

“I am not going to hide the fact that we should be good,” said Mauston, who is retiring as a teacher at the end of the school year but has not decided if he will return to coach.

“I have heard that this is it for him,” Seitz said, though acknowledging she didn’t hear that from her coach. “So we definitely want to (win 7A) for ourselves and for him.”

Seitz has been to state twice as an individual and all five years with the team.

“Not only is Anna a good tennis player, but she’s grown into a wonderful young lady,” Mauston said. “She’s taken on a leadership role. It’s been a great progression for her. I wish there were another handful of Seitzes in the basket, but she’s the last. She and Ava have been bookends for us. Since seventh grade, they’ve been the mainstays of the program.”

  • Duluth Marshall is lacking experience after losing key players to graduation. Senior Elyse Orn steps into a doubles spot vacated by her sister and junior Brenna Bollins moves up to the No. 1 singles position. Seniors Hanna Widdes, Meagan Morehouse and Alex D'Alliard will be asked to step into the lineup and earn some points.

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Virginia’s Anna Seitz hits the ball during Saturday’s match against Duluth East. Seitz has led the Blue Devils to five consecutive state tournaments. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

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