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John’s Journal: After A Huge Loss, Bemidji Tennis Wins Big

Lumberjacks Are Back At State After 48 Years

Posted: Sunday, June 6, 2021 - 9:33 PM


This week, a boys tennis team from Bemidji High School will make the school’s first appearance at the state tournament since 1973, and ending that nearly half-century gap is surely reason to celebrate. The Lumberjacks’ history-making season, however, also has been tinged by sadness.

Mark Fodness, who coached the team for 33 years before stepping down a year ago, died suddenly in November at age 61. His son Kyle is now the coach.

Oh, if only Mark were here to cheer for the boys this week. His obituary included this statement: He coached 33 seasons of tennis at Bemidji High School, 7 years at Bemidji State, and also coached speech & debate, football, soccer, basketball, and baseball, including his son, Kyle, in all of those sports.

Indeed, Kyle grew up with his father as a coach, teacher and mentor, and he appreciates everything he learned from his dad.

“I saw a saying one time: ‘Great people are great because they really are great all the time, especially when no one’s looking,’ ” Kyle told me Sunday. “I look at the conversations he would have with kids, and he put so much into those conversations and those kids. He did those things all the time, relentlessly.”

The Lumberjacks will meet Edina in the Class AA quarterfinals at noon Tuesday at Prior Lake High School. When singles and doubles matches begins Thursday, Bemidji senior Filippo Buffo will compete in singles.

Bemidji activities director Troy Hendricks said Kyle “has done an amazing job. We’ve laughed together and cried together about Mark. What he has accomplished is just outstanding.

“Kyle is a classy individual, just like his dad. When I was dean of students at the middle school, I had to monitor Mark’s class and I came back and said that’s the best teacher I’ve ever witnessed in the classroom.”

Like his father, Kyle, 27, is a middle school social studies teacher. When he told his dad that he wanted to follow in his footsteps, Mark told him, “Make sure you want to do that not because I did, but because it’s what you want.”

After the Lumberjacks won the Section 8 team title with a victory over Alexandria, they were on their way home and learned they would face perennial power Edina in the state quarterfinals. One of the younger players sitting near the rear of the school van said to Kyle, “Coach, how’s Edina?”

Kyle told him, “Buddy, four of their singles players are ranked in top 10 in the state. It was quiet for a bit and then he said ‘OK.’ ”

The state tennis tournaments are normally held on indoor courts, with Class A at Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis and Class AA at the University of Minnesota’s Baseline Tennis Center. Covid-19 has thrown a wrench into that this year, with Class A at St. Cloud Tech and AA at Prior Lake. There also will be no consolation brackets this year, so those who are defeated in the state quarterfinals will be done. On top of everything else, the weather this week is expected to be unseasonably hot and humid.

But after 48 years of waiting, you won’t hear any whining from the Lumberjacks.

Kyle said, “How can we be a team that has a complaint? You have to play where you play. And in a perfect world you’d hope you could do consolation, but what do you do? Whatever’s in front of you, let’s go after it."

Hendricks, along with many others who have firm Bemidji roots, will be thinking of Mark Fodness when the Lumberjacks take the court Tuesday. When he watches Kyle, he is often reminded of Mark.

“They’re fun, practice is enjoyable, they love strategy, they get athletes out for tennis,” he said. “They do it the right way, they coach the right way, they know how to motivate kids. It’s not about themselves, it’s about the kids, the players.

“It’s a great story. It really is.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at jmillea@mshsl.org

“I saw a saying one time: ‘Great people are great because they really are great all the time, especially when no one’s looking. I look at the conversations he would have with kids, and he put so much into those conversations and those kids. He did those things all the time, relentlessly.”
Kyle Fodness

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Boys Tennis State Tournament Advance Release