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Section boys tennis: Luverne upsets Worthington for 10th straight state berth

Luverne Cardinals tennis players celebrate after clinching their 10th consecutive state tournament berth Tuesday with a win over Worthington in the Section 3A team finals. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

REDWOOD FALLS -- The tenth straight section team tennis championship was maybe the most surprising for the Luverne Cardinals.

During the regular season, the Worthington Trojans defeated the Cardinals 5-2 in a dual, and they headed into the Section 3A boy team tournament on Tuesday full of confidence as the No. 1 seed.

But inside the dank, strangely quiet indoor tennis facility at Redwood Valley High School, the Cardinals prevailed when it counted most by winning all three doubles matches plus one in the singles category.

A young Luverne team, with four freshmen in tow, will participate in the 2019 Minnesota state Class A tournament in Minneapolis beginning June 4  -- and, yes, for the 10th consecutive year.

“I knew we could give them a battle. I just didn’t know we could get four points,” said veteran Luverne head coach Greg Antoine. “This one is probably one of the sweetest because I didn’t know if we could do it or not.”

Antoine’s uncertainty had a lot to do with his team’s youth. During the season, he said, the Cardinals didn’t practice as hard as required to win big late-season matches. But on Tuesday, they were clearly ready. Both teams won their semifinal showdowns outdoors (Worthington against Pipestone Area and Luverne against Redwood Valley), then renewed their rivalry indoors while cold, wind and rain whipped the courts they’d just abandoned. The teams played the finals on four courts stationed in a row, and started from the bottom up, with 4th singles, 3rd singles, 3rd doubles and 2nd doubles going at it while 2nd singles, 1st singles and 1st doubles waited their turns.

Worthington’s strength is in its singles lineup. Blaine Doeden, who went to state as an individual last year, led the group during the regular season while teammates Sullivan Merrigan, Kipton Jenson and Cade Lindner fell right in line as high-quality, consistent winners.

Quickly, however, the Cardinals showed their mettle on Tuesday, leading three of the four initial matches halfway through the first set. The key was at No. 3 singles where LHS freshman Colin Schoeneman went on to defeat Worthington junior Kipton Jenson 6-2, 6-3.

Jenson won the regular season matchup between the same two combatants, but on Tuesday Schoeneman was more consistent. Patient, in full control of himself, the Cardinal wasn’t flashy but returned everything back to his opponent. He led 3-0 in the second set, lost the next two games, but regained the initiative to give his squad the crucial victory.

In the first meeting, Schoeneman said later, “He (Jenson) was just playing really good. I wasn’t playing at my greatest.”

And the second time: “These courts are a lot faster (than outdoors). I just got used to his spin serve. And made him move around more,” said the Cardinal.

When Jenson pulled to within 3-2 in the second set, Schoeneman remembered, “I just knew I had to play through it, hit my shots and not get too upset.”

Said Antoine: “Colin really turned it around. They basically reversed scores. … You call some kids a pusher. You make the other kid hit all the good shots and if they don’t hit all the good shots, you win. He really played mentally well today. Even after a couple of bad breaks, he just kept going.”

Shortly after Schoeneman broke through at singles, Worthington’s Lindner won a tight battle with Pierce Cunningham at No. 4 singles, earning a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory in a match that Worthington had to win.

Teammate Sullivan Merrigan won his No. 2 singles match more easily over Graham Cunningham, 6-1, 6-1. The last match on the court, but after the team result was reached, was Doeden against the Cardinals’ Matt Jelken at No. 1 singles.

Lindner’s match was an emotional ebb-and-flow battle. The Trojan trailed 3-2 in the third set, but pulled it out.

“I played kind of bad in the first (set), and kind of picked it back up. I don’t know how it works. Just happens,” said the Trojan junior, who said he drew on his reserves to turn the third set around.

“I had to play. I had to try and win it. Hitting more consistent shots and getting him on the run,” he said.

Luverne won at No. 1 doubles with Matt Sehr and Cole Stoltenberg beating Ryan Newman and Ben Lopez 7-6 (7-1), 6-3. At No. 2 doubles, the Cards’ Carson Ehde and Jordan Winter won 6-4, 6-2 against Colby Hastings and Bobby Souwankham. And at No. 3 doubles, Blake Frahm and Griffen Jarchow won 6-1, 7-5 over the Trojans’ Levi Kuhl and Alec Langerud.

It was at No. 1 doubles that the Cardinals clinched their 10th straight state team tournament berth. It was a match that could have gone either way, but it went Luverne’s way.

Antoine admitted that although he knew his Cardinals were capable, he didn’t know if they would be ready to beat the favored Trojans.

“I just didn’t really know,” he said. “I knew they wanted it. But were they working hard enough to get it? What I really missed with our seniors (from last year) was how hard they practiced. The kids played hard today. They were worried about Worthington’s big serve in here -- the hard serve and the skip indoors.”

After it all, a subdued Worthington squad, including head coach Mike Marquardt, could only look forward to the Section 3A individual tournament, which will begin Thursday at Redwood Falls.

Marquardt led his 2019 unit to an outstanding team season, and he will bring back several of his players to challenge Luverne again next year. He summed up Tuesday succinctly.

“Great matches. Our team season ends tonight, and Luverne continues. So congratulations to Luverne,” he said. “Anything can happen. It just depends on the day.”

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