Prep girls tennis: Postseason progression bodes well for East's Hietala
PREP GIRLS TENNIS / STATE PREVIEW As a precocious pre-teen, Aili Hietala was ousted in the first round of the 2015 Class AA girls tennis state tournament. The next year, an eighth-grade Hietala won once before bowing out in the quarterfinals. She...
PREP GIRLS TENNIS / STATE PREVIEW
As a precocious pre-teen, Aili Hietala was ousted in the first round of the 2015 Class AA girls tennis state tournament. The next year, an eighth-grade Hietala won once before bowing out in the quarterfinals. She was even better last fall, advancing to the semifinals, where eventual champ Nicole Copeland of Edina scored a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Hietala, who went on to finish third.
Sequentially speaking, the Duluth East sophomore would appear destined for Friday's 11:30 a.m. championship match at the Baseline Tennis Center in Minneapolis after securing her first individual Section 7AA title Oct. 15 to guarantee a fourth straight state bid.
"Hopefully. Fingers crossed," Hietala said following a spirited hitting session with Greyhounds assistant coach Meghan Kimber on Thursday at the Duluth Indoor Sports Center. "That'd be the main goal, but I really hope to just play well the two days I'm down there."
Still too young to drive by herself, competing on the University of Minnesota campus in late October is nonetheless becoming old hat for Hietala. The soft-spoken but relentlessly competitive 15-year-old swept her way into the section championship match, where she dropped her first game of the tournament. Hietala won in straight sets (6-1, 6-4), but it took her 2 hours and 40 minutes to dispatch Princeton's upset-minded senior, Kelsey Dorr.
All the characteristics that make Hietala so dominant were on display that afternoon. Greyhounds head coach Lee Kruger said 50- and 60-shot rallies were common. That's Hietala's bread and butter. Defensively, Kruger said, "there's probably not a better player in the state." She tracks down everything. Mentally, it's a chore to oppose her because every point is a struggle. You have to hit good shot after good shot. The margin for error is miniscule.
"When they play Aili, they better pack a lunch because they'll be out there a while," Kruger said. "She'll stay out there all day if she has to."
Kimber can attest to that. While a lot of coaches take it easy on their athletes and gingerly return gimmes, Kimber doesn't subscribe to that mindset. The two went at it Thursday, neither willing to give an inch. And Kimber is no slouch - the former Greyhounds standout was a three-time All-American at Gustavus Adolphus, where she was inducted earlier this month into the school's athletic Hall of Fame.
"When you play her, you just expect every ball to come back," Kimber said. "She's a grinder. She's a fighter. She's a little bit of a scrapper in a good way."
Hietala, 29-1 this fall in singles and the No. 2 seed in the 16-player state bracket, opens against unseeded Eagan senior Eesha Varma at 8 a.m. Thursday. The quarterfinals follow at noon, while the semifinals and final take place Friday. Copeland is the top seed.
Incidentally, highlighting the respect afforded 7AA, runner-up Dorr is seeded fifth, ahead of some section champs.
Over the years, expectations have changed for Hietala, whose mother, Heather, played NCAA Division I tennis at Arkansas State. As you'd expect from a 12-year-old, she was simply happy to qualify for state in 2015. Everything else was icing on the cake. After her third-place showing last season - which gave Hietala bragging rights over her mom, whose best finish during her prep career at East was fourth - she admits there's some pressure attached to this week's trip south.
"When I was a seventh-grader, it was super new and everybody was older than me, so I didn't really know what to expect," Hietala said. "But now, since I'm a little bit older and more experienced, I know what happens and what to expect down there."
If she has her way, that will mean extended rallies as Hietala leans on her defense, waiting for opponents to stumble. Kruger alluded to a scary thought when he said Hietala has plenty of room to grow, especially offensively. She is, after all, just a sophomore.
Thus far, her style, which includes a loathing of losing, has proven quite effective. Hietala will try to become the first Northland girl to bring home a state title in either classification. It won't be easy, not with the defending champ once again in the bracket, but it's also not inconceivable.
"She's in the conversation," Kruger said. "You don't get that No. 2 seed by chance."
• Hietala isn't the only Northlander in the field this week. In Class A doubles, Eveleth-Gilbert sisters Audrey and Lydia Delich earned the fourth seed and face Litchfield's Laney Huhner and Vaida Behnke on Thursday at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis. Likewise, Virginia's Anna Seitz and Ava Warren meet Zoie Becker and Ellie Becker of St. James in a first-round match between unseeded duos.
In the team tournament, Virginia is the lone representative. The Blue Devils oppose Blake in Class A's first round at 2 p.m. today at Reed-Sweatt.