Blue Earth Area tennis trio qualifies for state

STATE QUALIFIER — Blue Earth Area singles player Te’a Armstrong drills a two-handed backhand return during the Section 3A individual tennis meet Wednesday at the Swanson Tennis Center in St. Peter. Armstrong went on to qualify for the Class A state tournament on Oct. 25. (Photo by Charlie Sorrells)

ST. PETER — On paper, No. 3-seeded singles player Te’a Armstrong and the No. 5-seeded doubles team of Macie Stevermer and McKenna Dutton were not expected to reach the Section 3 individual tennis meet’s finals, let alone qualify for the Class A state meet.

But that’s exactly what the Blue Earth Area sophomore solo netter and the Bucs’ sophomore-junior combination achieved Wednesday at the Swanson Tennis Center on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus.

“I probably wouldn’t have picked me to make the sectional finals in singles either,” Armstrong said with a grin. “I lost in straight sets to (Maple River junior) Vanessa (Barkosky) during the early stages of the regular season, but I put together a strategy that I thought might help me beat her and then I kept a positive attitude throughout the match.”

Armstrong registered a key service break to grab a 4-1 first-set lead over the No. 2-seeded Barkosky — a prior two-time individual state qualifier — en route to an eventual 6-2 win.

Barkosky rallied to net an early 2-1 second-set edge only to see Armstrong answer with four consecutive game wins for a 5-2 lead. The hard-hitting Barkosky garnered the next two games, but fell just short as Armstrong held on for the 6-4 second-set win to advance to the sectional finals.

“Winning the first set was a big emotional lift for Te’a. She’s the kind of player you can’t count out because she’s always thinking of ways to beat you,” said Blue Earth Area head coach Konny Wolff.

St. James Area senior and No. 1-seeded Renata Hernandez reached the sectional championship by disposing of No. 4-seeded Carissa Cunningham of Luverne in their semifinal, 6-0, 6-2.

Hernandez, who helped guide the Saints to the Section 3 team tennis crown last week, doubled her state bids by defeating the scrappy Armstrong, 6-1, 6-0, for the sectional gold medal.

Armstrong, who qualified with Julia Hanson as the 2017 Section 3A runner-up doubles team, then earned her first individual state singles berth when Barkosky rolled by Cunningham in the third-place match, 6-3, 6-2, to negate any true-second challenge.

“Ryan Dutton gave me some good tips during our last couple of practices, and they helped me keep my focus today,” said Armstrong.

Ironically, Ryan Dutton, who qualified for state as part of the Bucs’ tennis teams in both 1991 and 1994, also had advice for another Blue Earth Area player this week — his daughter, sophomore McKenna Dutton and junior teammate Macie Stevermer.

“Mostly, I just discussed doubles positioning since both of them were singles players for the majority of this season,” said Ryan Dutton.

Stevermer, who played No. 3 singles during the regular season, and McKenna Dutton, who filled the No. 4 spot in the singles bracket, lost the opening set of their sectional semifinal to No. 1-seeded Paige Ahrendt and Lauren Lapthorn of Pipestone Area, 6-4, and later trailed 4-3 in the second segment before clicking in synchronization to mount a comeback.

Dutton and Stevermer netted a pivotal break in Game 9 to swing a 5-4 second-set lead in their direction before Lapthorn and Ahrendt later forced a tiebreaker at 6 games apiece. Stevermer’s serving and Dutton’s slicing overheads allowed the Bucs’ tandem to prevail, 8-6, to force a third set. Blue Earth Area’s duo picked up steam and eventually fended off the Arrows’ third-set comeback by a 6-4 decision.

“I got the chance to pick my partner for the sectional individual meet, and I chose McKenna, and it really worked out,” said Stevermer.

“I think we finally found our doubles rhythm during last Friday’s second round of the individual meet,” said McKenna Dutton.

St. James Area’s sibling connection of Zoie Becker and Ellie Becker, however, denied Dutton and Stevermer sectional gold medals by rallying for a hard-fought 7-5, 6-2 triumph in the finals. The No. 2-seeded Becker sisters bested No. 6-seeded Carmen Skyberg and Courtney Kanthak of Pipestone Area, 6-3, 6-3, in the semifinals.

Stevermer and Dutton then qualified for state when Ahrendt and Lapthorn fended off Arrows’ teammates Skyberg and Kanthak in the third-place match, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6).

Hernandez and Armstrong open the Class A state singles meet at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis, while the Becker sisters — along with Dutton and Stevermer — hit those same courts at 10 a.m. Oct. 25.