by Rob LaPlante
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
St. Michael-Albertville has a junior and senior dominated varsity girls’ tennis squad this season but head coach Jim Riles knows he is still dealing with a very young team — young in experience.
Losing eight varsity starters to graduation on a team that tied with Buffalo for the Mississippi 8 title (18-5 overall) and made it all the way to the Section 5AA semifinals before losing 6-1 to top-seed Mounds View, has left Riles with a few leftover remains.
Two key faces returning are senior Jessica Duda and sophomore Kiana Eystad. Both were consistent winners as top-4 singles players a year ago. Duda is the lone returning all-conference player and spent most the season at the No. 2 slot, where she posted a 17-8 record. She also saw a few matches playing in the No. 1 position — a spot her and Eystad will both battle for this season.
“One and two singles will be strong,” said Riles, now entering his 25th season as head coach of the varsity squad.
While Eystad spent most of last year in the footsteps of her older sister Cierra, she will make the jump from No. 4 singles to one of the top two spots this year after posting a perfect 23-0 singles record a year ago.
Eystad was named an honorable mention on the Mississippi 8’s all-conference squad as a freshman.
“Duda and Kiana are both mentally tough who both battle to the end,” Riles said. “Those qualities are what you look for in a 1-2 singles player.”
Questions still exist who will step in at the bottom two slots in the singles lineup, but Riles said he has a lot of experienced junior varsity players ready to fill that void left with the absence of Breanna Hagerty and Cierra Eystad.
Senior Missy Gust spent last season as JV’s top singles player and Riles said he expects her along with senior Anna Moritz to fight for the No. 3 or 4 spot in the varsity lineup. Junior’s Emily Tschida and Shelbie Olek — last season’s Rookie of the Year — will both likely bounce between singles and doubles.
“We have a strong upper-class with a lot of inexperience in varsity action,” Riles said. “Our captains will be Duda and (senior) Brittany Haas and they should bring a lot of leadership to the table.”
Haas returns as the most experienced doubles player in the mix. Haas, Tschida and Olek all saw varsity time a year ago at the No. 3 position. Riles said he has his work cut out trying to replace last year’s top doubles tandem of all-conference players Halley Fritze and Kylie Slavin.
“I think Haas, Moritz, Tschida and Olek will make a strong upper doubles lineup,” he said. “No question, losing Slavin, Fritze, Michaela Haraldson and Kristina Budde will be tough to replace.”
Others in the mix for playing time will be junior’s Alissa Anderson, Annie Caron, Meghan Winans, Maddy Schopf and sophomore Jolene Duda.
“I’m real excited about the number of girls (41) that turned out,” Riles said. “Hopefully we have a winning record and finish in the upper half of the conference. Buffalo is always tough and Chisago Lakes will be one of the toughest new teams coming in. They had 100 girl’s tryout.”
The Knights hosted Monday its annual STMA Quadrangular that featured Park Center, Annandale and St. Cloud Apollo. Friday afternoon they take on Spring Lake Park.