The target is squarely on the backs of the Litchfield girls tennis team entering the 2019 season. The Dragons are coming off back-to-back state tournament appearances, culminating in a runner-up finish last season. Now they begin their quest to repeat their recent success.
“Once you get there, it’s exciting to go back again,” head coach Matt Draeger said. “Now it’s expected, and I don’t think the girls really want to be the group that doesn’t go back.”
Litchfield returns three of its four singles players from last year: all-conference returnees Elise Bierbaum and Avery Stilwell, and senior Alyssa Ross. It also brings back two top doubles players in Vaida Behnke and Neriah Lara, both all-conference winners, along with the No. 3 doubles team of Ryanna Steinhaus and Britney Prahl.
Players gone from last year include No. 1 singles player Shanna Kinny, No. 1 doubles player Laney Huhner and No. 2 doubles player Taylar Smith. Kinny and Stilwell combined to finish runner-up in the state doubles tournament, while Huhner and Behnke also reached state as a doubles pairing. Bierbaum finished fourth in the state singles tournament.
“It’s going to be different, because we lost a lot of seniors and the lineup is going to be changed up from last year,” Ross said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what younger girls come in and fill in.”
The first official practice was Monday, a week to the day prior to Litchfield’s first match, meaning the Dragons will need to hit the ground running quickly
“The season starts next week,” Ross said, “so I think the biggest thing is … I think a lot of the younger girls see that the older girls, returning varsity players, are out there and we are there to play and I think they see the seriousness and they follow suit.”
Draeger has been encouraged by their participation this summer in preparing for the season, which included the annual Watercade tennis tournament.
“We just had a pile of kids playing in the Watercade tournament,” he said. “The first day of practice, they go hard. … They like it. They like playing, they like competing, they like working at it, and that’s exactly what you want as a coach. … they just keep going at it.”
In addition to its back-to-back state appearances and section titles, Litchfield is also the two-time defending champion in the Wright County Conference. It won the West division with a perfect 4-0 record, one game ahead of New London-Spicer, before defeating Orono 4-3 in the WCC championship.
A big change for the Dragons this fall will be their new section. They switched from Section 5A to Section 2A, putting new foes in the way of their title defense. Annandale joined Litchfield in the switch, and fellow WCC teams Glencoe-Silver Lake and Holy Family are also members of the section. Other teams in the section are Belle Plaine, LeSueur-Henderson, Redwood Valley and Sibley East.
“I think we’ve established ourselves as one of the better programs in the state,” Draeger said. “So I think the bottom line with our section is we’ve got to play at our ability level … if we do that, I think we have a good shot at it. We have LeSeuer-Henderson, who challenged for the state tournament last year. Annandale is always a good program, and … you never know with Holy Family. I think those are the top four teams in our section.”
During a weeklong stretch in early September, Litchfield will face Annandale, Glencoe-Silver Lake, Belle Plaine and LeSueur-Henderson, which could provide an early gauge on how the Dragons stack up with their new section foes. Those matches will serve the long-term goal that is on the mind of Litchfield players in the first week of practice.
“I think the biggest thing is we want to get to state for the third year in a row,” Ross said.