HIBBING — In the late 1980s, the Hibbing High School boys tennis team was unbeatable.
The Bluejackets won most of their matches 7-0, which was the rule rather than the exception.
The only team that gave Hibbing fits was Duluth East.
Once that Greyhound hurdle was cleared, the Bluejackets could set their sights on a trip to the Twin Cities for the state meet, which was held at the 98th Street Courts.
Hibbing would make it to the state tournament in 1988 and 1990, but it was in 1989 where Hibbing had its most success, winning a first-round match for the first time in the teams’ history.
It was a three-year journey with a group of players that grew up and played sports together.
Team members during those three seasons included, Marcus Karki, Paul Wojciak, James Kotonias, Brian Tyler, Jake Pusateri, Shane Roche, Brian Hyatt, Adam Osborne, Dave Lindstrom, Scott Kolar, Vince Sogard, Mike Renner, Pete Verant, Pete Sellars, Dan Hendrickson, John Freihammer, Steve Krasaway, Chris Rocco and Todd Versich.
“I have so many fond memories of the town I came from, and many of those memories are playing on the tennis team,” Verant said. “I was a three-sport athlete, but tennis was my favorite.
“We were fortunate to have a great group of kids, who all played together, and they were coachable. We were tight as a group on the courts, and I still am close with a few of them.”
Depth was the trademark of those teams, plus, hard work. They could hardly wait to get on the court.
“We’d go out there and shovel the snow off of the courts,” Versich said. “We’d chip away and shovel it, then we’d put up the wind screens and nets.”
Verant might be a little impartial, but he said those teams were good because of the coaching.
That coach was Pete’s father, Milt.
“I was lucky to have my dad as a coach,” Verant said. “As I got older and had children of my own, who play tennis, I realized how great of a coach he was. Being a great coach takes a lot of patience, which I tested him on a daily basis, being a role model and a leader.
“It’s having the ability to connect with kids. My dad was a pro at balancing hard work and making it fun for everyone.”
The elder Verant had a lot of success, but he never rested on his laurels.
He made sure the best 10 players were on the court.
He did that by using a Challenge Board.
“This was a board that ranked every player in singles and doubles,” Kotonias said. “You could challenge up to two spots above your position. If you won the match, you moved up the ladder. This board helped determine the varsity team.”
After a while, Kotonias said that board became extinct.
“All we would do is challenge each other to try and get ahead,” Kotonias said. “I think Milt got so fed up with all of our challenge matches that he finally eliminated the board. This was a good thing.
“We were competitive enough, and we didn’t need a board to add to the drama. That helped us focus more as a team.”
Versich, who played either second or third doubles on those teams, respected Verant for his coaching acumen.
“Milt had no problems moving guys in and out of the lineup,” Versich said. “It was the accepted thing. They had so much knowledge of the game, and we competed hard.”
Krasaway also liked the way Verant and Gary Conda coached, and he liked the fun the team had, especially on road trips.
“Mr. Verant and Gary were great mentors and coaches,” Krasaway said. “It was a lot of fun. Pete was my partner at No. 1 doubles and in the van on the way home, Milt would get so mad at us. We would egg him on.
“It was a different time. I would never do it that way again. It was a good time.”
Krasaway used tennis as a diversion from hockey.
“Hockey was a pressure sport, and tennis was fun,” Krasaway said. “Tennis was more of an individual thing. This group supported each other, and we went out and tried our best. Everyone supported one another.
“We did things together. We didn’t lose a lot. There were some matches over the years where teams would stack their lineups, and we would still win. That says a lot about what those coaches did. It was fun.”
One of those matches stood out for Kotonias.
According to the rules, teams couldn’t sandbag, or put players into spots that were below their abilities.
“I remember Paul and I were a weaker doubles team, but becoming stronger and more confident,” Kotonias said. “We were playing at either second or third doubles, and the other team sandbagged their doubles team, putting them against Paul and I.
“We were expected to lose. I remember Paul and I brought it that day. We used to call it ‘Skying,’ when you played really well. On that day, Paul and I ‘Skyed,’ winning our match, even though we were not expected to win.”
During that 1989 season, the Bluejackets never lost a match.
“The only real competition we had was Duluth East,” Verant said. “They usually had a great team. We beat them just before regions, but it was close (4-3). Five of the seven matches were three sets or a tiebreaker, so it couldn’t get much closer than that.”
Kotonias remembers the ‘Tennis Moms” watching their sons’ matches.
“They were competitive, too,” Kotonias said with a chuckle. “I remember my mom used to watch my matches behind the court where we were playing our doubles match on. When I would miss an easy shot, sometimes she would put her hands on her head, squinch her face and so forth.
“This would add to the pressure of me playing doubles. After she would do it several times, I would stop, look at her and stretch my arm and point to the right or left. This meant my mom had to move at least two courts down to watch me play. I couldn’t stand the extra pressure, but those were good times.”
There was one minor, or maybe major faux pas during that season.
It happened after a match with Virginia. The team usually traveled in two vans. They would leave school, travel, play the match, then they would go out for a quick dinner before heading home.
“We went to McDonald’s to eat,” Kotonias said. “As we were getting ready to leave, Brian (Tyler) went back into McDonald’s to get an ice cream cone. When he came back out, we had left, and nobody had figured it out.
“The next day at school, Brian told me how we had left him behind. He had to call his dad from McDonald’s to come pick him up. So funny.”
Other than that, things were running smoothly for Hibbing, or at least that’s what the Bluejackets thought.
That’s when the unexpected happened.
Hibbing’s No. 3 singles player, Roche, injured his knee and would miss the rest of the season.
“Milt wanted all of the players to be responsible and safe and not go out to parties and get busted,” Wojciak said. “He invited the team to his cabin. We were swimming, skiing and tubing, goofing around.
“Shane dislocated his knee, which put an end to his season. We were trying to be safe, and we ended up injuring a guy. I drove him into town to the doctor.”
Versich remembers that day quite well.
“Milt wanted us to behave, so went to his cabin to eat, bond and have some fun,” Versich said. “We got caught up in the festivities. Shane was jumping on an inner tube, and blew out his knee.
“He was a big kid. He had a good serve and volley game. You couldn’t get anything by him.”
The only question remaining was how Roche’s absence was going to affect Hibbing’s chances in the 7AA Meet?
“I remembered thinking there was no way we could win regions without him,” Verant said.
According to Kotonias, the team went right to the lineup board to determine what points the team needed to win to capture the title.
“We had to quickly assess how to get four points, and who needed to win,” Kotonias said. “It was a great experience as you grow and mature from a boy to a young adult — pressure, responsibility, teamwork and support.”
Even though the Bluejackets were down one starter, they still beat Chisago Lakes 6-1 in the semifinals, which set up a showdown with the Greyhounds in the finals.
“Having one injured player, we had to make some changes to our lineup,” Verant said. “We ended up beating them 4-3, with only one match going three sets. I still remember the excitement of that day.”
Just before sections, the younger Verant, according to Kotonias, sent out a challenge to the elder Verant.
“We definitely bonded more as a team over the years,” Kotonias said. “I think this was due to Pete being quite the character as I remember. Pete was the one that proposed that if we win regionals, our coach would have to shave his head.
“I don’t think Milt ever agreed to the challenge, but I do think he did agree that he would shave his head if we won the state meet.”
The 7AA final match with the Greyhounds turned into a nail-biter.
Wojciak had a front-row set for the outcome of the match.
“There were two matches that were tight,” Wojciak said. “James and I and Markus were still on the courts. I was watching his score, and the rest of the team was watching both of our matches.
“James and I pulled off the victory to get the final point. That was a fun and tense moment. I was more excited to win that match and go to state. East was such a big rival. Our guys played well.”
As a freshman and sophomore, Kotonias never realized that dream of state, but now, he and his team were heading down to the 98th Street Courts.
“Over the years, we got stronger as a team,” Kotonias said. “By the time I was a junior and senior, we won regionals both years. The expectation was that we had put forth the effort, so now, let’s win regionals and see how well we can do at the state tournament.”
At state, Hibbing took on Hastings in the first round and won 5-2.
“Hibbing had never won a first-round match, and Milt promised that if we won that first-round match, he would shave his head,” Wojciak said. “I have never forgotten that. We won that for the first time as a team. We were thrilled to be the first team to win in the first round.
“We were jacked up to get that first win.”
Wojciak said the excitement of playing at state was running rampant throughout the entire team.
“There was a lot of talking,” Wojciak said. “We wanted to know how everyone was doing because we wanted to pull off and win this.”
That win put the Bluejackets into the semifinals against Blake, which beat Hibbing 6-1.
In the third-place match, the Bluejackets lost to St. Cloud Tech 4-3.
“I strongly feel that if Shane wasn’t injured, we could have won third place that year,” Verant said. “Reflecting back, going to state was special, but the friendships, the fun we had and the life lessons we learned is what I remember most.
“I went out for sports not to be the best, but to have fun.”
Kotonias said playing at state was a great experience for him.
“This would be the first time that I would get exposed to a big city,” Kotonias said. “Coming from a small town of Hibbing, you got to see what a bigger city was like. Back in the day, we didn’t have cell phones or the internet, so you had to see it in person.”
Looking back on it, both Verant and Kotonias now have a different perspective on life.
“Sports taught me many life lessons, and I have my dad, my other coaches and Hibbing to thank for that,” Verant said. “Was there any favoritism? I rebelled against him a little bit. I don’t know how my dad put up with me during my teen-age years.
“We did have a lot of fun, and to me, that’s what sports are all about.”
Kotonias said, “I do remember Milt being a great coach. He never lost his head, he was smart, he was competitive and he helped us develop in sports and life.”
In 1990, Hibbing would make it a three-peat, with Wojciak getting the deciding point in his match against Grand Rapids.
“I almost blew it for the team,” Wojciak said. “I was out there playing No. 1 singles, playing a kid I had never lost to. He had a style that worked against me.”
According to Wojciak, he fell behind 5-2 in the first set before he kicked it into gear.
“I remember waiting for my match, and realized I would be the deciding point,” Wojciak said. “There was pressure on me, but I had always beat this kid. I started slow. I guess my nerves caught up with me.
“The whole team was watching. I was getting nervous, but I pulled it together and won the next 13 games to win it. It was nerve racking.”
Hibbing took on Edina at state, and even thought the Bluejackets lost to the Hornets, that didn’t take anything away from that experience.
“When I look back, we had nothing to lose,” Versich said. “We weren’t respected because we were a northern team. We had a little bit of a swagger and nice mix of athletes with different backgrounds.
“We weren’t intimidated. We took so much pride in it. Our senior class was an amazing group of athletes.”