Crookston takes down Thief River Falls in grueling match
THIEF RIVER FALLS — Hayden Winjum always had a feeling it might come down to her.
Pacing the edge of the courts, wrapped in a blanket, Crookston's No. 1 singles player was just trying to stay ready while watching the ongoing matches. By the time Winjum stepped onto the court for her match against Emma Fagerstrom, the overall match looked to be in the Prowlers' favor.
But while Winjum and Fagerstrom were exchanging volleys, the Pirates were crawling their way back. Thief River Falls had taken the first three points of the day, but before results at No. 2 and No. 3 singles came in. Halle Winjum and Brekken Tull had both come out victorious, keeping Crookston's hopes alive.
Then, during Winjum's second set, Emma Gunderson and Emma Osborn left the court adjacent to hers, having beaten the Prowlers' duo at No. 2 doubles.
No. 1 singles — the last match still going on — would be for the win.
"The pressure was a little more at that point, but I was working hard the whole time," Winjum said. "That gave me even more motivation to get that win."
A seemingly endless procession of lobs, backhands and errors later, Fagerstrom's return on match point fell short of the net.
With that, nearly four hours after the match began, the Pirates clinched the win over the Prowlers, 4-3, in Thief River Falls Tuesday.
The Prowlers, the defending Section 8A champions, came into Tuesday unbeaten and with a win over Crookston on Sept. 15 already under their belts. That loss had snapped the Pirates' five-match winning streak to start the season. Three matches later, it remained their only defeat.
These were the two top teams in the section, but one was still a tier above the rest. Make no mistake, Crookston wanted to make a statement by changing that.
"Thief River kind of bullied everybody in the section last year, and they're really tough this year," said coach Cody Brekken. "They're a really strong program, and we came here and matched them up well. Played to the bitter end and came out with a win, which is something our girls needed to feel and see."
At first, it looked like it might simply be a repeat of two weeks prior. Avery Skaar wrapped things up quickly against Abby Borowicz at No. 4 singles. So did Abby Flaagan and Brooklyn Brouse against the Pirates' No. 1 doubles team of Catherine Tiedemann and Hannah Lindemoen. At No. 3 doubles, Avery Malone and Trista Spears made short work of Halle Bruggeman and Macy Fee.
But Crookston stayed alive in the match by exploiting some favorable matchups. While the Prowlers went with the same lineup they had rolled out in the first meeting, the Pirates changed everything, going with different players in all four singles slots and three different doubles pairings.
Halle Winjum and Brekken Tull took full advantage. Winjum beat Brooklyn Broadwell 6-4, 6-4, while Tull beat Bell Hamre by the same score.
While Winjum won the Pirates' lone individual match against the Prowlers two weeks ago and has been one of their most consistent players this season, Tull has more recently come into her own.
"They're really coming to fruition as singles players," Brekken said. "Brekken is finally getting into her rhythm, really starting to dictate points, pushing her opponent around the court. ... Brekken's got control of her shots as of late."
Meanwhile, Gunderson and Osborn found themselves just hanging on, down a set after falling, 2-6, in the first set. But the Crookston duo eked out a win in the second set, 7-5, and carried that momentum over to earn a 6-2 win in the final set over Gabby Steele and Hannah Cleven.
"That's a good character builder," Brekken said. "They really needed to figure out that matchup. Gabby and Hannah from Thief River are net prowesses and just are overwhelming doubles players at the net, so they changed their strategy a bit, moved them around a little differently."
With Gunderson and Osborn's win, all eyes turned to center court.
Winjum played Fagerstrom once last season, falling in straight sets. That served as her lone source of information on the matchup.
"She's a tough player," Winjum said. "She gets it back, she has a very strong stroke, a really good net game, and her serves are tough. She's an all-around really good player, so I knew it was gonna be a tough match."
Indeed, Fagerstrom came out firing. She ripped her two-handed backhand every chance she got, hoping to bury Winjum with pure power. Winjum's style of play, though, proved to be a perfect counter.
"Hayden plays really well with high pace," Brekken said. "Against Emma, she can move that ball around and return everything, frustrate her a little bit, and outwork her on the court. ... If you hit a hard ball, you want to overpower your opponent. So if you hit one and somebody just keeps hitting it back softer and softer and softer, it wears on your mental state a bit."
That's how Winjum took the first set, 6-2, behind a steady stream of flip shots and lobs, waiting for Fagerstrom to make a mistake. But Fagerstrom took a quick lead in the second set and didn't let go, winning 6-4 to stay alive.
Afterwards, Winjum readily admitted it — she was exhausted by this point. But there was nothing else for her to do.
"I just kept hitting the ball back," she said. "Kept going and kept working."
Winjum and Fagerstrom broke each other's serve on the first five games of the third set before Winjum finally held to serve to take a 4-2 lead. She then broke Fagerstrom again, but Fagerstrom returned the favor and held serve of her own. Suddenly, it was 5-4, with Winjum serving.
This time, she shut the door — on not just her own win, but the biggest team win for Crookston in recent memory.
"This match was an exciting one," Winjum said. "We know that we can stick with them. We know that we can take Thief River."
UP NEXT: The Pirates will finish off the regular season with the same opponent that they started it against, when they travel to face Roseau on Saturday, Oct. 3. Crookston won that season-opening matchup, 6-1, on Aug. 25.
But before, the Section 8A coaches will meet Wednesday night via Zoom to determine seeding for the section tournament, which will start the week of Oct. 5. The format is eight-team single-elimination, with matches being played at the home of the higher seed.
If the Pirates and Prowlers meet again, it will be for the section championship. Wednesday's meeting will determine where. Brekken and Thief River Falls coach Fabian Tunberg will sit out while the other six section coaches decide.
"A lot of them will value the second match being more important," Brekken said. "And a lot of them will value (the Prowlers) beating more opponents by a larger margin than us. That and our head-to-head, it's 4-3 vs. 6-1. It will be tough."
No matter the location, though, Brekken knows a third and final meeting between the two teams could go either way.
"We are right there in a lot of spots," he said. "You can't assume what happened today would happen again if we played them, the same ones aren't gonna win and hopefully the same ones aren't gonna lose. Nothing's guaranteed, it's not all in the lineup. It's coming out, being confident, and playing your game."
- No. 1 singles: Hayden Winjum (Crookston) def. Emma Fagerstrom 6-2, 4-6, 6-4
- No. 2 singles: Halle Winjum (Crookston) def. Brooklyn Broadwell 6-4, 6-4
- No. 3 singles: Brekken Tull (Crookston) def. Bell Hamre 6-4, 6-4
- No. 4 singles: Avery Skaar (TRF) def. Abby Borowicz 6-2, 6-0
- No. 1 doubles: Abby Flaagan and Brooklyn Brouse (TRF) def. Catherine Tiedemann and Hannah Lindemoen 6-0, 6-2
- No. 2 doubles: Emma Gunderson and Emma Osborn (Crookston) def. Gabby Steele and Hannah Cleven 2-6, 7-5, 6-1
- No. 3 doubles: Avery Malone and Trista Spears (TRF) def. Halle Bruggeman and Macy Fee 6-2, 6-1
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