VIRGINIA — With a week and a half of practice under their belt, the Rock Ridge boys’ tennis team is ready to take on their first contest of the season today, playing host to Duluth East.
The Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert programs combined recently due to low numbers from Eveleth-Gilbert, meaning the two teams became one a bit ahead of schedule. With former rivals becoming teammates, head coach Jeff Mauston says the transition to Rock Ridge has been a smooth one.
“It really has been great so far,” Mauston said. “Eveleth-Gilbert has great kids coming over to us now and they’ve fit in well with our kids. They’re all friends already. [E-G Activities Director] JoJo Scott does such a great job communicating with us that it made things very easy. We got some kids added to our ranks at all levels and they fit in nicely, especially when we have such great senior leaders on this team.”
While operating under the Rock Ridge Wolverines banner, the late consolidation between the two teams means they’re wearing Virginia Blue Devil colors for now.
With the 2020 spring season canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mauston says the players haven’t missed a beat despite being unable to compete as a team for nearly two years.
“You don’t know what to expect after last year. But they’ve all come in fired up. The kids are excited to come in and compete. Whether it’s talking, walking, running or hitting a tennis ball, they want to play hard and it hasn’t been much of a challenge to get them motivated.”
Opening their season against a strong AA team in Duluth East, Mauston expects today’s matchup to give them a solid baseline to start the year off with.
“East is always a strong program and I don’t think this year will be any different. I know they have at least five or six really solid players that we hope can give us a good match. We play them again on May 5 and hopefully we can use those two matches to see how much we’ve improved in that time.
“Then we have Thief River Falls on Friday and they’re always a strong opponent on our schedule from Section 8. We’ll have some good tests in the first month of our schedule and I think that will be good for us.”
Along with establishing a baseline, the first few matches could help the Wolverines figure out where some pieces fit in the lineup.
“We still don’t know how the entire puzzle fits together yet in singles or doubles. Our singles kids are kind of young so I’m curious to see what level they’re at. I know everyone is going to compete at a high level but these first few matches will help us figure out where we want things to go.”
While troubles brought on by COVID-19 are hopefully heading towards the rear-view mirror. Mauston says this year’s seniors have every reason to want to help this season go smoothly.
“They need to stay on their toes and be safe. They all remember what happened last year so they need to keep that in the back of their heads and cherish every moment they have here today. If we keep being smart and listening to what the guidelines tell us, I think we’ll be fine.
“The seniors from last year are even coming by and helping us practice so that sends a message. They missed out on something that they would have loved and our guys see that. It’s self-explanatory to them what they need to do.”
The Wolverines are currently captained by seniors Ryan Scherf and Jace Westerbur. A third captain will be named at a later date according to Mauston. The 2019 7A doubles champions, Scherf and Westerbur both fit naturally into the leadership role.
“Both of those guys have some great experience to their name. They won the doubles title two years ago and they just have great leadership skills. Scherf has grown into the role immensely and Westerbur is a little more outspoken so I think they make a great combo.”
Looking ahead to the future, the Wolverines hope to contend for the 7A title and expect stiff competition from around the section.
“Hibbing is always tough, Aitkin has some kids back and Hermantown had a really nice young team two years ago. If they have everyone back, they’ll be at the top which is a bit new for them. It’s hard to say this year which makes things a little more nerve wracking. Not everyone knows where things are going to shake out.”
Rock Ridge will open their season today against Duluth East at the Tennis for All facility in Virginia at 4 p.m.