Rain greeted Lake City on Thursday, but there was no dampening the Tigers and their hopes for a deep run in the Section 1A tournament, both as a team and individually. A location change from a home meet to a neutral site in Red Wing ended with Lake City trouncing St. Croix Lutheran Academy, 7-0, in the first round of the Section 1A tournament.
The rest of the team competition will be a tough task as No. 2-ranked Rochester Lourdes is the top seed. Lake City, ranked 10th, is the No. 2 seed, and Cannon Falls, the third seed, lost to the Tigers, 4-3, a couple weeks ago.
Lourdes also has two girls ranked individually, with Clare Palen at No. 4, and Natalie Allison at No. 8. But Lake City could pair some singles players for a run at one of the two doubles spots.
"Ava (Wallerich) and Ashley (Thieren) have played a lot of singles for us, so they haven't seen Stewartville's and Cannon Falls' No. 1 doubles team, and they played well against Lourdes, which was not Palen and Allison," said Tigers head coach Al Orthaus. "Depending on how Lourdes plays their top two, I believe we're a two-seed. I do know they're fired up about it."
Wallerich and Thieren already have a state tournament appearance, coming in doubles play two years ago. The pair hoped to take another step last year, but that was derailed early on.
"Ava and Ashley, already last year were looking to see how much better they could do at state, but that never happened after Ava went out (injured) about four matches in," Orthaus said. "Then we learned she wasn't coming back, so Ashley played with someone else, and they actually played for true second (at sections). So this year, Ava is that much more hungry to prove what she can do with Ashley."
No matter what happens, Orthaus and the Tigers will earn one thing that can't be taken away: experience. Kasi Cronin is the team's lone senior, and just three others, Katherine Kennedy, Thieren and Hailey Meincke, are juniors. And of the remaining six girls, there's a freshman and an eighth-grader.
"We're really lucky there. I'm only in my third season, so I'm still learning a lot," Orthaus said. "But the talent and youth, I didn't expect this for maybe another year, or even two. We're really fortunate that they're becoming so good so young."
A team title is unlikely with Lourdes powerhouse program residing in the same section tournament, but just getting to see the Eagles two or three times a year makes Lake City a better program. The days of "chipping away" at other solid teams like Winona Cotter, Stewartville and Cannon Falls, which Lake City will face in Monday's semifinals at the Rochester Athletic Club, appear to be in the rear-view mirror for the Tigers. The next step is a big one, but being ranked, and being seeded just behind Lourdes, bodes well for the future.
"We're really excited, just the tennis mindset about trying to keep the ball in play and being in control, sometimes that doesn't click right away," Orthaus said. "To have a group of 10th graders that have had that happen right now, and for two years in a row, that only helps foster growth. It seems like tennis is that kind of sport where experience is huge. By learning to do that at a higher level, you really develop. These girls, if they continue to work hard, the sky's the limit."