Duluth East needed help from a pair of freshmen and a senior who had never played varsity tennis before this year in order to capture its first Section 7AA team title since 2016, but in the end it was a reliable hand that secured a 4-3 victory over Elk River on Tuesday at Longview Tennis Club.
Aili Hietala cruised through her match at No. 1 singles, not realizing the win clinched the team title and completed a remarkable comeback. When she walked off the court after a 6-0, 6-1 win over Ava Nelson and teammates celebrated around her, she understood what had happened.
"I had no idea that we had won so it was a super nice surprise," Hietala said. "When I went on (the court), we had lost or were down in most of the matches so I was trying to win for myself. Then when I heard that the team won; that was the best thing."
Elk River won the first three matches that ended and led 6-2, 5-2 at No. 3 doubles before an unlikely duo staged an amazing rally.
Freshmen Ella Johnson and Isla Pepelnjak regrouped and beat Delaney Lundquist and Mya Nelson 2-6, 7-5, 6-1.
"In a baseball analogy, we were down to our last out," East coach Lee Kruger said. "We had a couple freshmen who caught fire and came back in a three-setter and the momentum really turned. That's the crazy thing about sports."
That left the match in the hands of singles players Natalie Goetzman, Cursta Dimberio and Hietala.
"I was joking with them, 'There is no tomorrow so you might as well go down swinging,' " Kruger said.
Goetzman defeated Paige Johnson 7-6, 6-3 at No. 4 singles and then grabbed her belongings and headed to the high school for a volleyball match. Goetzman, a setter, turned to tennis after the Minnesota State High School League originally voted to shift volleyball to the spring season. Despite volleyball moving back to the fall a few weeks ago, Goetzman remained committed to her tennis team.
"I always knew tennis would be my first priority until the season was over, and my volleyball coach knew that, too," Goetzman said. "Especially since this is my first season, I couldn't have asked for anything better."
Kruger knew of Goetzman's tennis talents, having seen her at summer camps, and always hoped she would switch sports.
"We were happy as heck to have her for the year," Kruger said. "I've been bugging her for years to play and thought I would only get her for the summers."
Dimberio trailed at times during her match against Kate Perbix before breaking serve in each set to pull out a 7-5, 6-4 win.
Once the freshmen doubles team won its crazy match, Dimberio was confident a comeback was in order.
"We could feel the energy, we were building each other up. We just wanted it so bad," Dimberio said. "The last two years we lost to Elk River, which was disheartening, but this year we knew it was our year.
"It's a good ending to the year, the cherry on top. It makes all the practices and hard work worth it."
There is no section individual tournament nor a state tournament due to COVID-19 restrictions.
It marks the first time since Hietala joined the varsity as a seventh grader that she isn't ending her season in Minneapolis.
"At first it was hard not knowing if my season was going to end at the state tournament, but even not having a state tournament and ending as section champs was super nice," she said.
Since nobody knew if fall sports would take place until about two weeks before practices were set to begin in August, the finish was extra special to East.
"It's a great way to end a crazy year," Kruger said.
Section 7AA Championship
Duluth East 4, Elk River 3
Singles — Aili Hietala, DE, def. Ava Nelson 6-0, 6-1; Emma Anderson, ER, def. Annabelle Humphreys 6-1, 6-3; Cursta Dimberio, DE, def. Kate Perbix 7-5, 6-4; Natalie Goetzman, DE, def. Paige Johnson 7-6, 6-3.
Doubles — Abby Johnson/Macy Hanson, ER, def. Ally Johnson/Tara Dimberio 6-4, 6-1; Leah Skogquist/Karly Hermanson, ER, def. Gwen Moe/Sylvie Markham 6-2, 6-4; Ella Johnson/Isla Pepelnjak, DE, def. Delaney Lundquist/Mya Nelson 2-6, 7-5, 6-1.