Girls tennis: Ponies face Minnetonka in state opener

Gazette photo by Stuart Groskreutz
Stillwater girls’ tennis coach Dave Kahl are preparing to compete in the Class AA state quarterfinals against Minnetonka on Tuesday at the Baseline Tennis Center in Minneapolis. The Ponies are slated to face No. 2 seed Minnetonka.

After earning its first trip to the state tournament since 2007, the Stillwater girls’ tennis team will open play in the quarterfinals against No. 2 seed Minnetonka on Tuesday at the Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota.

The Ponies (15-2), who tied fellow state qualifier Mounds View for the Suburban East Conference championship, won three straight matches in the Section 4AA tournament after falling to the Mustangs 5-2 in the conference finale on Sept. 27. Stillwater, whose only other loss was against Centennial in its first dual meet of the season, and Minnetonka are scheduled to play at noon.

The other quarterfinal match-ups feature #1 Edina vs. Elk River; #4 Rochester Century vs. #5 Mounds View; and #3 Prior Lake vs. St. Cloud Tech.

Edina, which has won state each of the past 15 years, joins Elk River, Mounds View and Minnetonka as repeat qualifiers for the state tournament.

“They’ve been ranked second or third for the most part of the year,” Ponies coach Dave Kahl said of Minnetonka. “I know their top singles player is ranked real high, but aside from that I don’t know a whole lot and we don’t have a lot of common opponents.”

The Skippers defeated Delano 5-1 in the Section 2AA finals.

“I’m assuming they’re going to be good top to bottom,” Kahl said. “We’re just going to go out and play our best against their best and see what happens. We’ve had a lot of success in the singles this year and hopefully that can continue. The doubles girls are still working hard and trying to get better and I feel good about them. Whoever plays best is going to win, hopefully we earn it.”

Natalie Phippen played third singles on Stillwater’s state team in 2007 and has competed at state in doubles once and has advanced to state in singles three of the past four years. She anchors a strong singles lineup and is joined by a superb cast of seniors that includes Shelby Ahrendt, Jackie Ellingson, Robbie Ellingson and Maggie Corman.

“I want them to go in and be relaxed and just play with confidence,” Kahl said. “They deserve to be here and, too often, teams that haven’t been there year after year look on and see the names and the teams in the paper and there is a mystique that gets attached to them and they get intimidated by that, but we’ve got nothing to be intimidated about.

“I’m real proud of these girls and no matter what happens, we’re excited and they’re excited and I think they’ll represent Stillwater well. I’ve been real happy with the success of the season, but this is a great bunch of seniors and it’s not just what they’ve done on the court, but as human beings. That group of seniors is a group of terrific young ladies and there’s some real good leadership up there, both on and off the court.”

Phippen and partner Alex McDowell went 0-2 at state in 2008 and Phippen has posted a 1-3 record combined in her previous two state appearances in singles.

Phippen will face No. 2 seed Hayley Haakenstad of Chanhassen in the first round on Thursday at 8 a.m. Haakenstad, a freshman, won the consolation title while competing at state in doubles last fall and is ranked second in the state coaches poll.

“It’s a pretty balanced field,” Kahl said. “I’ve never seen Hayley Haakenstad play but I do know she had a great record this year. I’m sure she’s going to be good, but we’re not facing an impossible hurdle, either.”

The Ponies will also be represented in the doubles draw with freshman Savannah Johnson and junior Aliza Deming, who played primarily second and third singles during the season. The duo’s first-round opponent is Meghan Herring and Kelly Reger of Edina in a match scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m.

“Obviously they’re going to be very good,” Kahl said.

Although playing singles most of the year, Johnson and Deming teamed up a few times during the season and did not lose a set while cruising to the title as the third seed in the Section 4AA tournament.

“Obviously they had great years in singles,” Kahl said. “It’s a little different game when you’re playing doubles, but once the tournament started I felt real comfortable that they were going to be able to win. They can become a much better doubles team than they are, but what they have going for them is they’re going to be consistent and not make as many unforced errors and they can be aggressive with their groundstrokes. They’ve grown confident enough in their game to be aggressive at key times. I was thrilled for those two and they deserved it. They earned it.”