Doug Wolter: In Luverne, winning at tennis is cool
In some high schools, it's not cool to be on the tennis team.
This is not the case in Luverne, and if it ever were, head boys tennis coach Greg Antoine is having none of it.
"I know the baseball players drive by the tennis courts and yell and scream, but they haven't been to six state tournaments in the last eight years," Antoine said Wednesday.
Luverne has been so dominant in its southwest Minnesota circles, it's almost embarrassing. Almost. Antoine admits that he takes a little bit of good-natured ribbing at the program's dominance, "but in a way, it's kind of fun. You know you're doing something right when it goes like that."
The Cardinals have competed as a team in the last three state tournaments, but Antoine -- who is in his 11th year at the helm -- worried in 2008 that the program was about to head into lean times. That 2008 squad went to state with eight seniors, and Antoine remembers that he didn't know what was coming up the next year to replace them.
So in 2009, the Cardinals competed with one seventh grader and four eighth graders on varsity. They shared the Southwest Conference championship with two other teams, but their record was an unimpressive (for them) 7-9.
The next year, with six freshmen, they won the section tourney.
Now, in 2013, they own an 11-0 record. In most of their matches, they barely drop a set. Senior Joey Vajgrt is entrenched at first singles, and he is coming off an individual sectional championship. Two other players on the team, Jonny Vajgrt and Dustin Deutsch, won the section doubles championship in '12.
Four years after that 2009 season, Antoine gushes about the depth of his 2013 squad, "This is as strong as I think we've ever been," he says.
Joey Vajgrt has competed in the section tournament for four consecutive years in singles, losing his initial match there as an eighth grader but qualifying for the state tournament with second-place finishes as a freshman and sophomore. As a junior, he was a section champ.
State tournament success, however, has eluded Vajgrt and the other Cardinals.
Well, let's put it this way: Southwest Minnesota is not exactly the tennis hotbed that it is in other sections of the state. You don't find state tournament success, from these parts, in tennis for many of the same reasons you don't find it in hockey.
At the beginning of the 2013 spring campaign, Antoine posed to his players the usual question.
"When I asked them what their goals were, they all said, 'Win the state tournament.' Then they all laughed. Then they said, 'We want to win a match. We've never won a match up there.'"
In fact, Antoine has polled other area boys tennis coaches about state tournament history and reports that none of them can remember a team from the section ever winning a state match.
"It's tough up there. It's like a whole new level," Antoine suggests.
This year, however, things could be different. Section 3's draw at the state tournament is Section 2, which allows this area's representative to bypass the really tough schools like Blake, Breck and Rochester Lourdes in the first round.
In the meantime, the Cardinals continue to dominate their little area of southwest Minnesota. To Antoine, it's not just that the Cards are so good, but the rest of the field -- for right now, at least -- is in a rebuilding mode. "We're on a hill, and everybody else has kind of been in a valley. Right now we're peaking and everybody else is not."
Which means that part of Antoine's job is to keep his team focused. It's not easy to get state tourney-tough when you're winning matches by 6-0, 6-0 scores, so the Cardinals try to push themselves against themselves. Antoine says he wishes the local teams could provide more of a test "because you'd just be a better team," but who can complain when you're winning?
I asked Coach Antoine why, really, the Luverne program has stayed so strong for so long. Obviously, the coaching is a major factor. And the athletes. But what else? The water?
Antoine responded by talking about his work with the six-week summer community education program. In 2003, he recalled, there were 47 kids out for summer tennis. Three or four years later, there were 154. Almost every kid on the Luverne High School boys tennis team today was once a community education regular. Many of them are some of the school's best athletes.
I guess when it becomes cool to play prep tennis, you'll get those outstanding athletes.