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12 Years Old, Two Wins From A State Tennis Title
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/28/2010 3:53:10 PM

In 1995, I watched an explosive young female athlete burst onto the Minnesota sports scene. I may have seen the same thing happen on Thursday.

Fifteen years ago, the athlete was Natalie Darwitz. She was then the seventh-grade star of the Eagan High School girls’ hockey team. Natalie, of course, went on to play hockey and win two NCAA championships at the University of Minnesota and become a star for the U.S. in world competition and the Olympics. She’s now an assistant coach for the Gophers women’s hockey team, which practices and plays at Ridder Arena on the U of M campus.

A concrete wall separates Ridder Arena and the U of M’s Baseline Tennis Center, site of this week’s Class 2A girls’ state tennis tournament. I don’t want to take too big of a leap here – or put Darwitz-caliber pressure on another young athlete – but the only thing separating Natalie Darwitz and Jessica Aney might be years.

Aney is 12 years old; she won’t be 13 until April. She is a seventh-grader at Friedell Middle School in Rochester and the No. 2 singles player on the tennis team at Rochester Century High School. She is gaining national fame … but more on that in a bit.

Jessica is 4-foot-11 and she stands two victories away from being a state champion. On Thursday she defeated Edina junior Meghana Vasireddy and Minnetonka junior Jessa Richards, both by 6-3, 6-3 scores. Aney will meet Mounds View junior Melanie Yates in Friday morning’s semifinal round at Baseline.

Another Century player, junior Kelsey Frechette, advanced to the semifinals on the other side of the bracket. She will meet Blaine sophomore Mary Liz Swanson.

Despite Aney’s age, she is not intimidated by a steady stream of older competition.

“It’s really fun, but I’ve been playing against really good players my whole life,” she said Thursday.

Century coach Kyle Anderson has watched Aney for years, but even he was impressed by what he saw Thursday.

“Nothing fazes her,” he said. “She’s playing like a state tournament veteran. She’s a great athlete and from day one she has shown the determination to play every ball and use her time efficiently.”

Jessica has been playing tennis since she was 5. Her dad, Tom, played tennis at Minnesota-Duluth and her mom, Karen, was a tennis player at Luther College in Iowa. Jessica’s big sister Katie is a freshman on the tennis and hockey teams at Century and kid brother Nick is a fifth-grader who also plays both sports.

Watching Jessica on the court is like watching Darwitz on the ice 15 years ago. Natalie was tiny but equipped with speed, explosiveness and determination. Jessica is all business on the court, using tremendously quick feet to cover lots of ground.

“I think I’m really fast defensively,” she said to no one’s surprise.

Now, about that national acclaim. A photographer from Sports Illustrated For Kids was at Baseline on Thursday, and Jessica was the assignment. She is one of three finalists for the 2010 SI For Kids Sports Kid of the Year Award. More than 2,000 kids were nominated for the award; the other finalists are a 9-year-old runner from Texas and a 13-year-old football player from New York.

Jessica is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. Tennis Association Northern section (Minnesota, the Dakotas and northwestern Wisconsin) in the girls 12 and 14 age groups. She is ranked 15th nationally in the girls 12 group. She has won more than 20 USTA-sanctioned tournaments.

Academically, she gets all A’s and had the highest individual score as a member of the 2009 Math Masters state championship team. She plays the piano and is a percussionist in the school band. She sings in the church choir and does volunteer work.

Getting back to the Darwitz comparison: Jessica is one heck of a hockey player, too. She has played for high-level age-group teams and she was the MVP as her team won the 2010 International Cup 12-under Tier 1 AAA championship. It’s safe to say she will see lots of ice for the Century High School team this winter.

The high school tennis season ends Friday. Girls’ hockey practice begins on Monday.

Hey Jessica, take a couple of days off. We know we’ll be hearing from you again.

(To see video and photos of Jessica Aney, as well as photos of other players from Thursday's tennis tournament, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.)

*Schools/teams John has visited: 110
*Miles John has driven: 4,182

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn

Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf Coach Gets 300th Victory
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/28/2010 10:11:09 AM

Happy Thursday. Here's a feel-good story, thanks to Tyler Mason of the Faribault Daily News ...

Michele Heise is a member of the 300-win club.

The Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf volleyball coach earned the milestone victory Wednesday as the Trojans defeated the International School of Minnesota by a 3-0 final in the first round of the Eastern Minnesota Athletic Conference tournament.

“What a nice honor for 300 wins,” Heise said. “I’ve really enjoyed coaching volleyball for 17 years. Every year is always special.”

Heise began coaching the Trojans in 1994 and compiled a 16-4 record in her first season. Since then, she has had just two losing seasons, and helped MSAD to a 26-5 record so far this season. Heise’s squads have won at least 25 games in each of the last three seasons.

“MSAD is my soul,” Heise said. “I have been in the MSAD gym for almost all of my life since I grew up and worked there.”

The Trojans cruised to the 3-0 victory over the Warriors, opening with a 25-14 win in the first set. That would be the closest final score the International School would have, as MSAD went on to earn victories of 25-6 and 25-10.

Cindy Siebert had a team-high 13 service aces, while Molly Perkins added 11. As a team, MSAD had 38 aces.

Siebert also added 15 set assists, and Rachel Novella had four kills and three digs in the win.

“It was nice to see everyone getting the chance to play in the EMAC tourney,” assistant coach Steve Hubmer said.

With the win Wednesday, the Trojans advance to the tournament’s semifinal game at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday against the winner of Shattuck-St. Mary’s and the Hmong Academy.

A win in that game would put MSAD in the championship, which takes place later in the day at 6:30 p.m.

— Sports reporter Tyler Mason may be reached at 333-3119.

A Day Of Indoor Championships and Outdoor Challenges
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/27/2010 10:50:11 PM

Wednesday was much like Tuesday in our little corner of the world. The wind howled like a banshee as it roared across the prairie, playing havoc with motor vehicles, tree limbs and people walking down the street.

The best part of the day for me was the morning and afternoon, which I spent inside the friendly confines of indoor tennis centers. The team portion of the girls’ state tennis tournaments concluded with Edina winning the Class 2A championship and Rochester Lourdes capturing the 1A title.

Then came the outdoor portion of my day. I walked onto the soccer field at Hopkins High School well after nightfall, wearing about nine layers of clothing, and began shooting some photos. I noticed another photographer all bundled up, but there was no way to identify anyone in that state of dress.

But then I noticed what seemed to be a few familiar facial features. I looked again and said, “Kyndell? Is that you in there?” It indeed was Star Tribune photographer Kyndell Harkness, a former colleague. “Hey, John,” she said. We chatted while the wind blew and the mist fell. Then I waved the white flag – just as I did at halftime of the previous night’s football game – and retreated to the press box.

The state soccer tournament kicked off Wednesday with two girls’ games at Hopkins and two girls’ games at St. Cloud State. There will be more of the same through Friday at several sites before soccer moves into the Metrodome for the semifinal and final rounds.

Thank goodness for the Metrodome, too, because my last act before leaving Hopkins was a little scary. I was inside a porty-potty (who do so many of my experiences involve portable biffs?) when the wind rattled and almost tipped the darn thing over. Someone in an adjoining biff let out a shriek as our capsules began to jostle ever so slightly. No fun, no fun at all.

Oh, and when I pulled into my garage I noticed that one of my car’s headlights was burned out.

But as always, tomorrow’s another day.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 106
*Miles John has driven: 4,162

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn

A Mighty Wind, A Football Blowout And A Special Gift
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/26/2010 11:54:17 PM

Maybe it was because I couldn’t feel my fingers. Maybe it was because the wind kept trying to tip me over. Whatever the reason, I bailed out on the sidelines at halftime of the Edina-Minnetonka football playoff game Tuesday night.

I headed up to the press box, which was the smartest thing I did all day. The wind was … well, if you were at a game you know what the wind was like. The temps were in the 40s in the Twin Cities, but I unofficially clocked the wind at a little more than a bazillion miles per hour.

Minnetonka beat Edina 39-0 in a game that employed the so-called mercy rule, in which the clock does not stop in the fourth quarter when the margin is at least 35 points. And mercy me, nobody was upset about having the game end a little quicker than usual. My hasty halftime retreat to the press box was delayed just a bit, however.

Before the game, as is my custom, I shot photos of cheerleaders, fans, etc. (those are the bundled-up Minnetonka student managers in the photo.) A couple of members of the Minnetonka dance team smiled and posed when I pointed my camera their way, and then we chatted for a few seconds. I told them that I would photograph their halftime performance and post the photos on the MSHSL Facebook page (which I did, as you can see by going to that page).

As the first half wound down, however, a little blinking light on my camera was telling me, “Hey dummy, our battery is almost dead.” My backup battery was in my backpack, which was staying warm up in the press box. So I stopped shooting the football game, shut off the camera and saved some juice for the halftime show.

Mission accomplished … up to the press box … new battery installed and away we go.

The game was exactly what the final score would indicate. Minnetonka reversed a regular-season decision in beating Edina and moving on to face Eden Prairie in Saturday’s Class 5A Section 6 semifinals. The opening kickoff danced and juked in the wind, Edina’s returners couldn’t find a handle on the darn thing and Minnetonka’s Charles Webb jumped on the ball in the end zone.

James Farrow, who has committed to play at Virginia Tech, ran for short (8 yard) and long (61) touchdowns and intercepted two passes for Minnetonka. He also did the head official a favor and grabbed his hat when it blew off his noggin during the first half. (As seen in this photo.)

THAT OPENING touchdown was a gift for the Skippers, and a member of their coaching staff gave me a little gift as we sat together in the press box during the second half. John Mattox is an old coach whom I have known for a long time, and I always look forward to seeing the guy who is called “Mad Dog” by his players.

We were sitting there when John asked me, “Do you ever wear bolo ties?” Yes, I answered, saying that I had lived in Phoenix for a few years so I am very familiar with the classic western necktie. John reached into the pocket of his jacket and handed me an object in a plastic bag. It was a bolo tie; the metal clasp said “Tonka Pride” and carried an “M” for Minnetonka. “I made it myself,” he said.

It’s a work of art, as you can see in the photo. I’m no craftsman, so I don’t pretend to understand the process for creating such a nice piece. But I will treasure it, because it came from a good friend.

NOW IT’S ON TO Wednesday, which means day two of the girls’ state tennis tournaments and day one of state soccer quarterfinals. My plan is much like Tuesday’s: watch indoor tennis in the first part of the day and then bundle up for another evening of outdoor sports.

I’m afraid to look at the weather forecast.

*Schools/teams John has visited: 102
*Miles John has driven: 4,162

--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn

Dry, Warm Tennis … And Cold, Wet Football To Come
Posted by John Millea (jmillea@mshsl.org) - Updated 10/26/2010 5:01:02 PM

The opening day of the girls’ state tennis tournament was perfect. Well-played matches … cheering fans … and wonderful conditions, too, thanks to indoor courts.

I’m writing this from Baseline Tennis Center at the University of Minnesota, where the quarterfinal round of the Class 2A tourney has been completed. We are high and dry here at Baseline, but that theme will not continue for the entire day.

That’s because I’ll soon be headed to a football playoff game. I’m going to watch the Edina-Minnetonka game at Minnetonka, and the back seat of my car is piled high with layers of clothing and rain gear.

I’ll write more about football late this evening. For now, let’s stick to today’s indoor sporting activities.

If you believe in rankings, the opening round of the 2A girls’ tennis tournament was for you. In all four team quarterfinal matches, the higher-ranked team came out on top: No. 4 Minnetonka defeated No. 10 Elk River 6-1, No. 1 Edina beat unranked Eagan 7-0, No. 3 Rochester Mayo beat unranked Brainerd 7-0 and No. 2 Mounds View defeated No. 8 Cretin-Derham Hall 6-1.

That sets up Wednesday’s semifinals with Minnetonka facing Edina and Mayo meeting Mounds View, all at Baseline Tennis Center.

In Class 1A, the results did not necessarily follow the rankings. No. 5 Waseca edged No. 4 Virginia 4-3, unranked Staples-Motley/Verndale beat No. 7 St. James 4-3, No.8 Rochester Lourdes beat No. 10 Roseau 7-0 and No. 3 Breck beat unranked Annandale 5-2.

The matchups in the 1A semifinals will be Waseca vs. Staples-Motley/Verndale and Lourdes vs. Breck at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis. (To see more photos, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.)

And now, let’s get layered up, buttoned up, zipped up and hopefully warmed up. Football beckons …

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