Red River, Sheyenne getting used to down-to-the-wire tennis matchups as state begins
For more than a decade, the North Dakota state girls tennis tournament was a formality.
It was only a matter of time before Grand Forks Red River was crowned champion, adding another year to its run of titles.
That won't be the case today in Choice Health and Fitness.
Red River and West Fargo Sheyenne, who have gone back-and-forth for the past two seasons, have provided the ultimate drama this spring and have potential to play a down-to-the-wire final.
They both still have work to do to get there—the quarterfinals are at 10 a.m., the semifinals at 1 p.m. and the finals at 6 p.m.—but they will be the heavy favorites.
The Roughriders, the East Region champions, are 12-1 overall. Red River's only loss was 5-4 to Sheyenne in the regular season. Sheyenne won four three-set matches in that dual.
Sheyenne, meanwhile, enters with an 18-1 overall mark. Its only loss was 4-1 to Red River in the East Region final. All four of Red River's wins in that dual came in three sets.
The lone match that didn't go three sets in the East Region team final was at No. 1 singles—a showdown between the state's top two players, Red River freshman Shaelyn Johnson and Sheyenne freshman Monti Knewtson.
And that match also is a tossup—they've exchanged straight-set wins this season.
"They're learning how to deal with that stress of being in a tight match," said Red River coach Greg LaDouceur, whose team routinely blew out opponents en route to state titles from 2002-15. "I don't think any of them go in there thinking they are going to win 0 and 0. They know the competition has raised the bar. They know whoever they play, they're out there for the same reason and that's to win the match.
"There really isn't any separation like there used to be and that's a good thing. At any time, anybody can get beat. The girls know that. I let them know that. We're just like everyone else. We need to perform and be ready to perform."
Sheyenne ended Red River's 14-year run as state champion last spring thanks to Knewtson's 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7) win over Johnson at No. 1 singles.
Johnson came back two days later to win the individual state singles title, though.
They are the top two contenders in the individual tournament, which begins Friday and ends Saturday.
"They are both very good players," LaDouceur said. "They are very different. Monti is kind of bouncing around the court and is agile and hits the ball with a lot of pace. She's pretty accurate with her shots. Shaelyn anticipates well. She plays pretty good defense and can also hit the ball with pretty good pace. They are different style of players, but both very solid players."
Although Red River and Sheyenne appear to be on a crash course headed for the final, LaDouceur pointed to several teams at state that could throw things off course.
Minot is the top seed from the West.
"I'm not looking ahead to playing Sheyenne, because I'm playing a Bismarck team in the first round," LaDouceur said. "They are there for a reason. The focus really isn't on Sheyenne. It's going to be some good tennis. There are some very good teams going into the state tournament."