An era came to an end Thursday at Longview Tennis Courts as Aili Hietala played her final high school individual match.
It was no surprise that the Duluth East senior, who has been entrenched at No. 1 singles for all six years on varsity, swept her opponent 6-0, 6-0.
After all, love-love describes Hietala’s feelings about tennis.
“It’s flown by super fast; it feels like I should be in seventh grade instead of being the oldest on the team,” Hietala said. “Every year has been amazing and I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”
After the Minnesota State High School League on Thursday voted down holding fall state tournaments during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Hietala’s final tournament in a Greyhounds uniform will be the Section 7AA meet. That will only be a team competition (East is the No. 1 seed in the North Subsection), leaving Hietala no opportunity to defend her individual title and no chance at winning her first Class AA state championship (her best finish was third).
“Obviously it’s sad to hear because I’ve been there every year,” Hietala said of a late October visit to Minneapolis. “My last year would have been amazing to have that final goodbye, but on the other hand I am super happy that we at least got a season this fall.”
The coronavirus not only played havoc on a shortened prep season but also shut down the national junior circuit in the summer. That’s a circuit the 17-year-old Hietala had been on since she was 10.
Those tournaments involved long car rides to warm locales with her father Joe, the Duluth East football coach, and mother Heather, a former Division I tennis player at Arkansas State, at the wheel.
“There were definitely a lot of fights but we got through it,” Aili said jokingly.
Heather has fond recollections of those days.
“We made many long trips and enjoyed every moment of it,” she said. “I considered it quality time. Those were our family trips.”
The summer tennis circuit and the resulting ranking system are what many college coaches rely on to recruit players. Without that option, finding the right college to play is made more difficult.
“A lot of those high school seniors not having an opportunity to play in those summer tournaments and not having a state tournament hurts them,” East coach Lee Kruger said. “They aren’t going to get a final look from college teams. But good college programs tend to find good players and that’s what she’s banking on. Aili will land on her feet no matter where she goes.”
Hietala hopes to play Division I tennis but didn’t reveal which schools she is considering.
“It’s been tougher to attract colleges since there were no (summer) tournaments and no state tournament,” the right-hander said. “But there are still a lot of great schools out there that are looking for players. I just need to decide which one I want to go to.”
Her parents will back her on whatever she decides, even if it means hopping back in the car for more long rides to watch her play.
“We just want her to be happy,” Heather Hietala said. “As far as her tennis goes, if it’s something she wants to do then something will fall into place that she’s excited about.”
For the next couple weeks, her daughter is just looking forward to finishing out the season with her teammates. Oddly enough, a season lacking any serious challenge to her Northland dominance has been enjoyable.
“It’s been a lot of fun with less pressure and less stress,” Aili said.
Her final match Thursday caused her mother to reflect on the end.
“It was very bittersweet,” she said. “Tennis has been a big part of our life, our summers and traveling and family time together.”