In August 2020, Esko’s Jayden Karppinen was trying to figure out what she was going to do last fall.
The three-sport standout for the Eskomos typically played volleyball, basketball and softball. At the time, however, the Minnesota State High School League had moved the volleyball season to the spring as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
About the same time, Cloquet’s Dana Jones made a decision to focus on earning a spot on a college softball roster after graduation. With the time commitments for her Minnesota Elite travel team, Jones felt like she couldn’t devote the time necessary to contribute on the Cloquet-Carlton soccer team last year.
Karppinen and Jones found themselves at the end of last summer with a lot more time on their hands. Both wanted to continue playing three sports and they came to a similar decision.
“I was like, what am I going to do in the fall,” Karppinen said. “One of my friends was like, ‘We should join the tennis team.’ We both picked it up together as something to occupy our fall with and then I ended up really, really enjoying it.”
By the end of the season, Karppinen decided she would play tennis in 2021 instead of volleyball. She admitted she wavered some last spring and summer, but ultimately decided to leave the Esko volleyball team for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton tennis team.
Jones, who also plays for the CEC hockey team, said she still wanted to play three sports and decided tennis was the answer — especially since many of her friends on the hockey team also played tennis.
“I wanted to play three sports, tennis is something I can do for fun and I don’t really have to have that much pressure on myself for it, which is nice,” Jones said. “I love soccer and I miss it sometimes, but in the end I made the decision to start focusing on softball.”
As it turns out, Karppinen and Jones are pretty good at tennis too. The Lumberjacks are 10-4 this season, with Karppinen playing consistently at the No. 1 doubles position with Brynn Martin and Jones floating between the Nos. 2 and 3 spots with partners Carlee Maslowski and Bella Harriman.
Karppinen said she likes the more individual aspect of tennis than ]basketball or softball.
“Playing basketball and softball, for example, it’s so team oriented and you’re so dependent on everybody else,” she said. “Where tennis, it’s more up to you to perform how you want to play. So I like being more self-dependent and having that change.”
Neither Karppinen or Jones had ever played tennis before last season, but their growth has been remarkable.
Martin said Karppinen has shown a strong commitment to improving, working after practice and on weekends to build skills she needs on the court.
“I think her serve is most improved — she has a really hard serve,” Martin said. “She has a really good tennis sense, she’s really fast with her movements on the court and she always puts in 100% effort at every practice and every match.”
Karppinen and Martin are 10-4 this season and have become a reliable win in tough matches for the Lumberjacks.
Jones said she had “never picked up a racket” before last season, but has developed a good serve and plays really well at the net. CEC coach Derek Johnson said Jones didn’t play a single varsity match in 2020, but she is 11-2 so far in 2021 in doubles matches.
What’s more, she and hockey teammate Maslowski have developed a strong partnership on the tennis court that complements each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s been super nice to have that connection where we can play good together and not make as many mistakes as we would without each other,” Maslowski said.
Johnson said their play isn’t always perfect but the competitiveness of Karppinen and Jones is a benefit to the team.
“They just want to win,” Johnson said. "They find ways — sometimes I say it’s called winning ugly. You don’t need to be perfect out there or look great. We can win ugly.”
Karppinen and Jones feel they are building skills in a sport they will play long after they stop playing softball, basketball or hockey.
“With tennis, it’s an easier, more laid back sport that you can play at any age,” Karppinen said. “The hard thing about tennis is that to be able to play it well, there are a lot of techniques you have to use. It’ll be enjoyable in the future for me to be able to come back to those tennis roots and be like ‘Oh, yeah, this is how I do it.” It’s something I can take into the future with me more than softball or basketball.”