VIRGINIA — With two programs becoming one shortly before the season started, the Rock Ridge boys’ tennis team knew making the state tournament was a realistic goal for their first year.
Two weeks ago, the Wolverines rolled through the section playoffs, defeating Aitkin 7-0 to advance to their first state tournament as a program. In addition to that, sophomore Jared Delich won the individual singles tournament and seniors Ryan Scherf and Jace Westerbur defended their 7A doubles title, sending all three to the individual state tournament.
Their tickets punched and their practices completed, the Wolverines will need to be on top of their game when they take on Rochester Lourdes in the Class A quarterfinal on Tuesday. A well respected program, the Eagles are one of the top teams in Class A, but Rock Ridge is looking forward to the first round battle.
“It means we’ll be giving it our all right away,” senior Sam Berlin said on playing Lourdes. “That’s a tough team but everyone down there is tough. If we can beat them, we’ll be at the top of our game and I like our chances if we’re playing our best.”
Berlin’s doubles partner and fellow senior Logan Bialke had a similar sentiment.
“I like having a tough opponent right off the bat,” Bialke said. “It gets you focused. It makes you driven and you won’t be falling into a lull. Our guys will want to push even harder knowing how tough it’s going to be.”
Captains of this year’s team, Scherf and Westerbur know there’s nothing to lose for Rock Ridge in their quarterfinal contest.
“We’re going in as the underdogs,” Westerbur said. “We don’t have anything to lose and our team knows that. We’re both strong programs and I think it’s going to be a close match.
“We have to be as positive as possible out there,” Scherf said. “Every match is undecided until you go out there and play. You have to show up that day if you want to win, so that’s our first step.”
On the matchup itself, head coach Jeff Mauston believes the two teams stack up quite well with each other.
“If everybody plays well, we’ll have a shot at them,” Mauston said. “It could be a 4-3 match. There are spots on our team that work very well against their weaknesses so that’s encouraging.
“You never go into a match thinking you’re going to lose. These kids have done it before and they can do it again. They come ready to compete and I think with the background of success they’ve had, they can definitely come out and win this first match.”
With the decision to merge the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert teams coming just before the start of the season, the change from Devils and Bears to Wolverines happened quickly. Delich, a student at Eveleth-Gilbert said the transition was nothing but smooth and the welcoming atmosphere made for a great first year as Rock Ridge.
“It was a really fun experience,” Delich siad. “I’m happy that Virginia was so accepting of us Eveleth guys. It makes our team that much stronger being added into the mix. Everything so far has been such a fun experience and doing it as Rock Ridge has made it even better.”
Players from Virginia were also enthusiastic about the change.
“At first I didn’t know what to expect from it,” Berlin said. “I thought it would be a little weird but the kids that came over are really special and it made our team that much better. It was amazing to have their support and it feels great to be the first Rock Ridge tennis team to go and do this.”
Scherf agreed while highlighting the timing felt right after the loss of the 2020 spring season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Not being able to play at all last year, we really wanted to make this year something great,” Scherf said. “Knowing we had a shot at making it to state last year and then losing that was devastating so combining with some really great kids from Eveleth-Gilbert and doing all of this with them has just been a great experience this season.”
With the two schools working as one, Mauston says it’s a unique experience for this year’s team.
“Once we realized we were the first Rock Ridge tennis team to wear these uniforms, it became an honor. As coaches we talked with the guys about how important and historic this was as a program. We’ll be the first Rock Ridge tennis team at state and I’m very proud of this group of kids for getting us to that point.”
A senior heavy team, the Wolverines are an experienced bunch. For their captains Scherf and Westerbur, it’s a special feeling to lead their classmates to state in their final high school contests.
“It’s special we get to play with them down at state,” Westerbur said. “Being a captain for this group of guys is something Ryan and I really appreciate. This is a good, hard working group and I know next year they’ll be just as good.”
“It’s just a great team to be a part of,” Scherf said. “We all just respect each other and leading a team like this is really cool. It’s something special that I’m glad I got to be a part of.”
For Bialke, seeing the culmination of years of work ending with one final state tournament is a unique feeling.
“We’ve gone to state before but this is our year as seniors. We get to see all the progress we’ve made over the years. I’m excited to put everything I’ve learned to use down at state.”
And for Berlin, the chance to make even more memories with his teammates is an opportunity that can’t be missed.
“It’s really cool to end our senior year down at state. We’ve already made so many memories but being able to do this as seniors is icing on the cake. The memories we make here are something I’ll be excited to look back on.”
The Wolverines’ coach says the success this year’s team has had is a true testament to the hard work and dedication from it’s seniors.
“These kids have worked hard and battled through the ups and downs,” Mauston said. “In order to be a good team, you have to have great senior leadership and this is as great as we’ve had in that department.
“They’ve made it such a pleasure to coach them every day and those are the things you remember. You remember watching them grow up and then when you see them in a few years you can reminisce. I’m really thrilled for them. It’s a culmination of a bunch of great careers academically and athletically.”
Rock Ridge will take on Rochester Lourdes on Tuesday at 10 a.m. at St. Cloud Tech High School. The individual tennis tournament is set to begin on Thursday, and a preview on Scherf, Westerbur and Delich ahead of the individual state tournament will run later this week.