Panthers tennis found the right mix to win 13 matches and earn No. 2 seed

Spring Lake Park girls’ tennis team emerged as one of the top programs during the regular season after an underwhelming 2012 campaign that admittedly left the team divided.

A 13-3 overall record and 6-1 mark in a competitive North Suburban Conference yielded a No. 2 seed behind top-seed (and ninth-ranked in the final state coaches poll) Mounds View in the Section 5AA tournament.gtennis SLP Paxton Alto hit 2

Spring Lake Park captain Paige Owens, right, returns the ball from the baseline during indoor practice before the Section 5AA team tournament began. Photo by Jason Olson

Spring Lake Park captain Paige Owens, right, returns the ball from the baseline during indoor practice before the Section 5AA team tournament began. Photo by Jason Olson

The Panthers’ lone loss came against conference champion Benilde-St. Margaret’s, which posted a perfect 7-0 record in the conference and 12-4-1 overall record.

The Red Knights topped Spring Lake Park 4-3 Sept. 3. The Panthers also came up short against the nine-place ranked Mounds View team 5-2 (Sept. 13) and St. Michael-Albertville 4-3 on Aug. 23.

Spring Lake Park coach Mark Fierst said the experience level among the leadership of the team has proven invaluable throughout the fall.

Three-year captain and No. 1 singles player Paxton Alto is a prime example of the turnaround. “She’s been a leader on and off the court,” Fierst said. “She has taken her role as captain seriously and hasn’t been afraid to confront teammates when they’re not pulling their weight.”

A team meeting to gauge the commitment from the rest of the team came after a lackluster 2012 campaign. “And play it a lot in the off-season,” Fierst said.

Besides nearly everyone on the team is part of another sport albeit softball, hockey or track, for example.

“So we were able to get everyone on the same page and the same goal for the season,” Alto said. “People were in better condition coming into the season.”

Spring Lake Park senior Paxton Alto returns the ball during a training drill. Photo by Jason Olson

Spring Lake Park senior Paxton Alto returns the ball during a training drill. Photo by Jason Olson

A renewed commitment to Panther tennis resulted in a more focused team, ready to compete with the top programs on the schedule including Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Totino-Grace.

“We wanted to win the conference and we fell short of that and now our goal is to make it to state and we weren’t sure we could then we started to win a lot,” Alto said.

Upsetting Coon Rapids at its own invitational at the start of the season was a sign that the Panthers have the potential to compete with the best.

Senior captain Paige Owens said the practices leading up to the Coon Rapids match made them not only physically prepared, but mentally ready to compete. “So we weren’t over thinking things but cheering everyone on instead,” she said.

Alto beat Cardinals top singles player Emily Bauer, another three-year player at No. 1 singles, for the first time in her career.

She focused on adding velocity to her serve and even some movement to keep the opponent off balanced, Alto said.

Alto believes her squad is ready for a rematch against Mounds View.

“We’ve come along way since we played them last and have a new attitude,” she said.

The rematch would be indoors at the Baseline Tennis Center for a section title. Baseline is also where the state tournament takes place one week later. Playing out of the elements might favor the Panthers, according to Alto, because they would have a better idea of where the ball would go instead of compensating for the wind.

Owens also takes her role as captain seriously “by being the nuts and bolts of the team,” she said,

First-year varsity player Alex Plevell has brought an “uber-positive presence on the team,” Owens said.

Owens is another multi-sport student competing in gymnastics and track. “I really like little parts of each [sport],” she said. “Right now I really, really like tennis and I’m going to be really sad when it’s over.”

The biggest surprise of the season has been the performance by freshman Mallory Corrigan. She moved from second and third doubles to provide stability as a singles player. Fierst said the biggest difference Corrigan has shown is her consistency hitting the ball combined with a decisiveness when it comes to making a decision and going after it.

Junior Ally Schneider boosted her power in the off-season and continues to hit the ball well.

Another surprise comes from the doubles team of Maddy and Kensay Kelly who have held down first or second doubles all season. The pair haven’t lost a match this season, while the doubles team of Kati Thunborg and Christina Tran boast a 30-2 record over the last two seasons. Fierst believes they will receive the top doubles seed.

“It’s really fun, we’re taking it one match at a time and just having a good time right now,” Owens said.

Jason Olson is at
jason.olson@ecm-inc.com

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