The Grand Forks Red River boys tennis team has been the Goliath in the state of North Dakota, winning 18 of the last 21 state championships.
Expectations always have been enormous, so this season was unusual.
The Roughriders were no longer thought of as the giants after failing to reach the team state final in back-to-back seasons, the first time that had happened to Red River since the early 1980s. The Roughriders finished third at state a year ago and lost their No. 2 and No. 3 players to graduation.
"I was hoping to finish in the top three somewhere," Red River coach Greg LaDouceur said. "I figured somewhere in that 3-4 spot, when you look at what we lost compared to what other teams lost. None of us were looking to finish the way we did."
When the North Dakota state boys tennis tournament begins Thursday at Choice Health and Fitness, Red River will unexpectedly be back with the same credentials of all of those past dominant teams: The Roughriders are the East Region regular-season champions, the East Region tournament champions and have a perfect 15-0 record.
Although 2017 state champion Fargo South and 2018 state champion Grand Forks Central returned a lot of key pieces from their title teams, Red River knocked off both of them in the same week earlier this season, then beat South again in the regional final last weekend in Fargo.
"This has been a pretty rewarding season so far, up to this point, because it was so unexpected," LaDouceur said. "I don't think I'm speaking out of line when I say that I don't think anyone looked at us to do this."
LaDouceur recalled a conversation with another coach who congratulated him after the Roughriders won the East Region and admitted that he thought South and Central would easily handle the Roughriders this season.
"That coach was spot on with what he said about the general consensus," LaDouceur said. "South was heavy with seniors. Central has almost everybody back from an undefeated state championship team. Our guys have to be very proud of what they've done. One day or one weekend won't determine the season, but we're going to go into it fighting."
Red River used the same lineup for the entirety of last weekend's East Region team tournament: senior Kaden Johnson at No. 1 singles, senior Koby Kuenzel at No. 2 singles and eighth-grader Espen Schneider at No. 3. It used junior Sam Murphy and junior Ryan Muizelaar at No. 1 doubles and freshman Saylor Kuenzel and junior Jett Weis at No. 2 doubles.
"We have a couple of other options," LaDouceur said about his lineup. "But it was one of those things where things went really well. We keep a close eye on our doubles teams. We've been messing around with mixing and matching guys in practice -- guys that played singles and guys that played doubles as well. If we get a sense that somebody isn't on, we're not afraid to make a change if necessary."
That wasn't needed last weekend.
"Our doubles teams played really well," LaDouceur said of the teams that went a combined 5-1 at the East Region team tournament. "They're very valuable and a big reason why we accomplished what we did last weekend."
If Red River and Central, led by East Region singles champion Gary Wu and all-conference singles player Logan Sandberg, both win their quarterfinal duals, it would set up a showdown between the two Grand Forks schools in the semifinals. Fargo South is in the opposite half of the bracket.
All three rounds of the team tournament will be played Thursday. Because of anticipated poor weather, the entire tournament will be played indoors.
"To be undefeated up to this point, it's a great accomplishment," LaDouceur said. "Hopefully, we're not done yet."
N.D. state boys tennis tournament
When: Thursday (team), Friday-Saturday (individual).
Where: Choice Health and Fitness, Grand Forks.
Team openers: GF Red River (No. 1 East) vs. Jamestown (No. 4 West), approx. 11 a.m.; GF Central (No. 3 East) vs. Minot (No. 2 West), approx. 11 a.m.; Bismarck Legacy (No. 1 West) vs. Fargo Davies (No. 4 East), 10 a.m.; Fargo South (No. 2 East) vs. Bismarck Century (No. 3 West), 10 a.m.
Red River individual qualifiers: Kaden Johnson (singles, No. 2 East); Espen Schneider (singles, No. 6 East); Saylor Kuenzel-Jett Weis (doubles, No. 5 East).
Central individual qualifiers: Gary Wu (singles, No. 1 East); Logan Sandberg singles, No. 3 East); Braden Panzer-Chase Spicer (doubles, No. 3 East).