It took Minnetonka High coach Dave Stearns 30 years to win the State Class AA boys tennis title, but the 67-year-old mentor said the wait was worth it.
At the halfway point of the 2016 season, Minnetonka was still looking for its groove, and a 7-3 record wasn’t indicating there would be a state championship at the end of the rainbow. However, the Skippers caught fire the second half of the season, winning their last eight matches and the ultimate prize.
One of the keys to winning the state Class AA title was the return of tri-captain Dan Wheaton, who missed the first half of the season with a shoulder injury.
“When he was out of the line-up, Dan still came to practice every day,” said Stearns. “He was very helpful. It was like having another assistant coach. And once he was able to play, he solidified our doubles.”
Minnetonka’s eight-match winning streak at the end included 5-2 victories over second-ranked Shakopee and top-ranked East Ridge. The Skippers were never ranked No. 1 until the very end of the season – when it counted most. After defeating East Ridge in the state semifinals, they won a tough 4-3 decision over Rochester Century in the championship match.
In addition to Dan Wheaton’s return, the Skippers’ singles players improved, technically and tactically, Stearns noted.
“Our singles players became better at working the outer thirds of the court,” said Stearns. In layman’s terms, the Skippers were able to make their opponents chase the ball.
“Ben Wheaton took that strategy and ran with it,” said Stearns. “So did Sterling Sibley and Matt Kregness.”
Those top three singles players proved themselves in tough matches at state.
Fourth singles player Ahmed Atayev went 15-0 this season.
At first doubles, Stearns counted on consistency from a set of brothers – senior tri-captain Carter and sophomore Trevor Smiley. Dan Wheaton played second doubles with Jacob Stork, and during the eight-match winning streak Frank Stich and tri-captain Brent Maghan played third doubles.
“I am a lucky man,” said Stearns. “The kids bought into our team concept. We talked about tennis self-esteem a lot. A coach can give his players strategy and tactics and help them get into the right state of mind. But the players are the ones who have to do it. So it was important for each of them to ask: ‘What’s inside me?’”
Looking inside themselves, the Skippers realized they could beat any team in the state, especially with Dan Wheaton in the line-up.
“When Dan played, we never lost,” Stearns observed.
At what point in the season did Stearns first have an inkling Minnetonka might be state-championship material?
Surprisingly, it was after the Skippers lost to Mounds View 4-3 in the Edina Invitational.
“I stood in front of them after that, and I could see it in their eyes,” said Stearns. “Regarding the loss, I told them, ‘Better now than later.’ They knew that I believed in them. Shortly after that, Dan returned to the line-up. And at the end of the season we had our trifecta with Lake Conference, Section 2AA and state titles.”
Stearns said there were many people who played roles in the team’s success.
He praised varsity assistant John Wheaton, the father of Ben and Dan.
“Having John helped in a lot of ways,” said Stearns. “We collaborated during matches, and he made my job easier. He is a very capable coach.”
Stearns said he is thankful to have an athletic director like Ted Schultz.
“When Ted came to Minnetonka, he talked about transformational coaching,” Stearns recalled. “Ted holds his coaches responsible, and at the same time, he backs us when he feels we’re right.”
Lastly, Stearns said the Minnetonka parents deserve credit for the team’s success. The support the parents gave the team and their work behind the scenes helped make 2016 a championship season.
Contact John Sherman at [email protected]