Girls' tennis: Brekken excited about Pirates' depth

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Hayden Winjum returns a ball during Crookston girls' tennis practice Tuesday afternoon at the CHS courts. The Pirates begin their season on Aug. 25 at home against Roseau.

To Cody Brekken, it’s all about timing.

A number of former Crookston girls’ tennis players became adults, had kids around the same time and eventually got their kids into tennis. And as the second-generation Pirates rose through the ranks, they brought plenty of friends with them.

This exponential growth allowed for the scene at the CHS tennis courts on Tuesday afternoon: 24 girls between ninth to twelfth grade, so many that the varsity and JV teams had to be totally split up. There wasn’t even room for the seventh and eighth-graders — they were practicing at Highland Park instead.

“We’re pretty thick at every class,” Brekken, in his second year as the girls’ head coach, said. “Usually you get a class or two with one or two kids, but really, it’s five or more per grade. We’re very heavy in girls’ tennis.”

Thanks to that depth, Crookston is trending upward as it nears the start of the 2020 season — its first match coming on Aug. 25 against Roseau at home.

Last fall, the Pirates fell in the Section 8A semifinals to eventual champions Thief River Falls. They were young, with plenty of good athletes, but couldn’t get over the hump against the Prowlers. This year, Brekken’s hoping a more experienced roster changes things things.

Crookston’s depth becomes even more of an advantage when viewed relative to the rest of the section. While the Prowlers tend to reload, rather than rebuild, they lost five seniors from 2019. Most of Section 8A is in the same boat. The Pirates, meanwhile, graduated just two — Eden Haller and Audrey Harbott.

With just 10 lineup spots — four singles and three doubles pairings — to go around, with a roster twice that size, Brekken has the liberty to experiment.

On paper, Crookston should be led by the doubles pairing of seniors Emma Borowicz and Catherine Tiedemann, who have made it to the state tournament two years in a row, and sisters Hayden and Halle Winjum, who placed third in Section 8A in doubles last season. Juniors Emma Osborn and Hannah Lindemoen and freshman Emma Gunderson are also on the rise, according to Brekken.

But in practice, nothing is solidified yet. Brekken expects everyone to play everywhere, at least in the beginning.

“It’s only been a couple practices, and a lot’s changed in a year,” he said. “It takes about four to five matches usually to figure out who’s played all summer, who’s stepped up, who wants singles and who wants doubles. I’m excited to see that.”

The Pirates’ numbers have also resulted in a heightened sense of competition. During practice, players compete against each other in challenge matches, where Brekken observes how they perform in a match-type setting.

“A lot of girls have different strengths and weaknesses, and they know the magnitude of playing each other in challenge matches,” he said. “Either you’re playing in that nine or 10 spot or you’re playing JV. … They definitely embrace the competition.”

There is, though, a touch of irony that goes along with Crookston’s depth. Due to COVID-19 constraints, the 2020 regular season is shorter than usual: just 11 matches, all of them duals. There are no early-season tournaments or non-section matches where Brekken might normally experiment with “wacky” lineups or test a player in a new scenario. And assuming his four-to-five match benchmark for getting a feel for a team holds true, the season will already be half over.

On the same note, even the section and state tournaments themselves are up in the air. No one knows just how they’ll look at this point — if they take place at all.

For now, Brekken is just excited to have any kind of season. In spite of external and internal uncertainties, he thinks things will eventually pan out, as long as his team is playing. And no matter what, the Pirates’ healthiest, most robust roster in years gives him something to bank on.

“This year it will be, goodness gracious, who do we have playing four singles and three doubles on the bottom,” Brekken said. “I’ve got a slew I could put in those spots. … We’ve got a lot of depth, and it’s a good problem to have.”

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