These seniors are in it to win it
Spend some time with the six senior girls playing varsity tennis for the Blue Earth Area Buccaneers and you will soon get a taste of the cohesiveness and bond they have which has helped them stay undefeated through the first ten meets of the 2020 season.
To be sure, they love to harass each other and give each other a bad time. But when it is time to play tennis, they band together to help make each other better.
The six seniors, Ta Armstrong, Cali Beyer, Lyndsey Borris, McKenna Dutton and sisters Arika and Britt Howard, all joined the team in seventh grade.
It was not the first choice for all of them, however.
“I was actually planning on playing soccer in Fairmont,” Armstrong says. “But then a sharing agreement fell through so I went out for tennis.”
She was not the only one who had not made the decision to join the team from the beginning.
“I did not show up until picture day,” Britt Howard adds.
A couple of the girls had played tennis through the Community Education program offered through the school. Armstrong’s father had coached tennis at BEA. Dutton was the only girl whose parents had played the sport in high school.
“Both my parents played for BEA coach David Aassen,” Dutton comments.
Yet, it didn’t take long for things to change.
“I had never touched a racket before I went out for tennis in seventh grade,” Arika Howard remarks. “Then I fell in love with the sport.”
It was a feeling shared by her five teammates.
“We had some excellent senior examples on the team in our seventh grade year,” Beyer recalls.
This year’s seniors then start calling out the names of the leaders they learned from during their seventh grade season.
Karli Olsen, Natalie Fellows, Paige Darrington, Annika Wilhelmi, Lacey Benz and Annaliese Klinkner were all given credit for helping this group of girls get to where they are today.
“They set an example for us to follow,” Beyer shares.
The group says Arika was the best player in seventh grade. By eighth grade she was playing singles on the varsity team while Armstrong and Dutton played varsity as doubles partners.
By the ninth grade all of the girls were playing varsity at one time or another. It was also the year the girls experienced one of their fondest moments of their tennis careers.
“We beat St. James 5-2 to end their streak of 12 consecutive Section championships and we earned a trip to the State Tournament,” Britt Howard recalls. “Every one of the freshmen that played that day earned a point for the team.”
The girls say they all remember when one of the veterans on the squad, Julia Hanson, won her match for the fourth and deciding point to solidify the trip to State.
“It was pretty exciting,” Armstrong says.
Last year, when they were juniors, they also had a season to remember when the girls once again earned a trip to the State Tournament as a team.
There have also been trips to the State Tournament as individual qualifiers, and while the players appreciate the individual success, they really enjoy the team aspect of the sport.
“We are all real close and we really support each other,” Beyer comments.
They also do their part to cheer on the younger members of the team.
“We stay off of our phones at the meets,” Britt Howard says. “When our matches are over we go and cheer for the other varsity members still playing. When those matches are done we cheer on the junior varsity players who have taken the court.”
The senior girls say there are many reasons they have been successful.
“We get great support from our parents,” Britt Howard states. “It helps to have them encouraging us and giving us that extra little push.”
It also comes down to the attitudes the girls themselves possess.
“We have a drive to be the best,” Arika Howard states. “And that leads us to help the younger players so they are ready to help the team.”
When asked for one word descriptions of their teammates, the seniors reply, “Incredible, supportive, competitive, persevering, outgoing and goal-oriented.”
They also are in agreement that Armstrong is currently the toughest singles player on the team.
“McKenna is the best doubles player,” Armstrong states. “She is so good at the net.”
Three pairs of sisters are on the varsity squad. In addition to the Howard sisters, Armstrong and Dutton each have a freshman sister on the team.
“We have always included the younger sisters, even in things not pertaining to tennis,” Britt Howard says.
Armstrong and Dutton both say they like having their younger siblings on the team.
“I think it comes down to all of us being comfortable with each other,” Arika Howard says.
The seniors also make sure to give credit to their coach, Konny Wolff, for her work in guiding the team and helping make them better.
“She makes practices fun,” Borris shares. “And the summer program she initiated has helped make us better.”
The girls say they also have four other mentors who have worked with them over the years.
Travis Armstrong, Ryan Dutton, Layne McCleary and Ryan Milbrandt have been a big help, according to the seniors.
“They take the time to work with us and they watch our meets,” Dutton shares. “They give us positive feedback and constructive criticism.”
Tennis has not always had a large fan base. Whether it is the success of the team this year or because COVID-19 is filling people with the desire to get out and do something, this group of girls has noticed a difference in the crowds this year.
“The parking lot is full and people are having to park down the street,” Armstrong notes. “It is nice to have that kind of fan support.”
While the girls may be having a dream season thus far, they are not having the season they dreamed of. The coronavirus has cut into the amount of tennis they have been able to play and post-season play will probably not include a State Tournament.
“We miss going to the invitational tournaments,” Armstrong comments. “You play a whole bunch of matches and it is a great team-bonding experience.”
As for future tennis plans, Armstrong and Dutton say they may play in college if they have the opportunity. Their teammates say they would love to play in an intramural league while at college.
But for now, this group of six senior girls is focused on winning their next tennis match and enjoying their time together and hoping to have some kind of post-season play, knowing this season is their last together at BEA.
“It will be a big change,” Arika Howard says. “We are not ready to be done.”