Elk River’s Morrell, O’Connell, Hultberg and Rogers’ Griffiths end season at state
by Jake Andersen
A few of the area’s top high school tennis players made their way to the state individual tournament on June 6-7 at Baseline Tennis Center and despite some tight battles, each player ended a great season with a pair of losses.
Elk River No. 1 singles player Stewart Morrell and Rogers No. 1 singles player R.J. Griffiths took two losses in the state singles tournament, while Elk River duo Joe O’Connell and Isaac Hultberg came up just short of a win in the doubles tournament. Morrell was the only player to record a win due to Eastview’s Gavin Young, the No. 1 seed, having to withdraw with an injury.
For Morrell and Griffiths, the junior standouts felt like they handled the tournament better than they did last year when they made their first state tournaments after undefeated sophomore seasons. It just didn’t translate into wins.
“I think I felt more prepared this time around. I had the experience I needed, but I don’t think I played as good as I could have,” said Morrell, who went 0-2 at state last year. “That’s just tennis I guess. One day you play great, another day you just don’t have it.”
“I do feel like I handled things much better than last year,” said Griffiths, who went 1-2 at state a year ago and is the only tennis player in school history to make it to state. “I played against two solid players and held my ground from the start, which I was proud of, judging that I had lost quite handily in the first round last year.”
Morrell, who qualified for the state tourney by winning his second straight Section 7AA singles tournament, lost his first round match to fourth-place finisher Karthik Papisetty 6-2, 6-1 and then lost to Rochester Mayo’s Simon Kennel 6-1, 6-0 in the consolation semifinals.
Despite the losses, Morrell took pride in ending another season at state, especially in his first year at No. 1 singles and as a captain. He finished with a record of 26-7.
“It’s always an accomplishment ending your season on the highest possible stage,” Morrell said. “And playing No. 1 singles all year showed that I’ve improved some too. So it’s good to know that my hard work paid off.”
Griffiths, who qualified for state by taking second at the Section 5AA singles tournament, also lost his matches in straight sets, but he didn’t make it easy on his opponents. After taking a 6-1 first-set loss to No. 5-seeded Sujit Chepuri of The Blake School, Griffiths responded with a much better second set, nearly forcing a set tiebreaker in a 7-5 loss. Griffiths then gave Simon Kennel an even better match, falling short 7-6 (8-6), 6-4.
“Of course, I am a tiny bit disappointed, but I still am especially proud of my first match. Getting six games and almost taking a set, nonetheless only losing 5-7 in the second set and lasting two hours against a player like Sujit, is quite a good feeling. It’s something I can look back on and know what I can improve on, and see what I am doing well on as well,” Griffiths said. “Going into that second match, to lose that closely sure was frustrating, but that guy was having a really good day, and I was tired and not playing at my best, which was what I would have needed for a player as good as he was.”
Griffiths finishes the season with a 21-5 record. He said it meant a lot to him to finish it off at state and represent his school once again.
“Representing a school that hadn’t been represented prior to me in state is awesome,” Griffiths said. “But not only did it all feel great to return to state, it felt great seeing all these other players (on my team) want to be there as well. It’s brewing competition in the younger people on the team and making them work even harder in an attempt to beat me and reach that stage as well.”
O’Connell and Hultberg made it to state after taking second in the Section 7AA doubles tournament and fell 6-0, 6-0 to No. 5 seed Michael Deal/William Deters of Wayzata and 6-3, 6-3 to Tharun Inturi/Alex Kortgard of Shakopee.
It was O’Connell’s third and final state tournament and while he hoped to come away with his first state individual win, the senior captain said he was proud of the way they played, especially in a closer second match.
“I thought we played decent the first match. We tried everything we could; ... they were just better than us. But our second match I’m very impressed on how we played,” said O’Connell, who went 23-7 this season.
Hultberg, who was making his first state appearance, said it was a great experience to make it to that stage and see the level of competition. The junior captain added it was even more special to be there with O’Connell, who finishes his career with 95 wins.
“It was so fun to play with Joe and to play his last-ever match with him. He would tell me after every point ‘we have nothing to lose,’ so we put it all on the court,” said Hultberg, who went 21-11 this season. “It was a great experience and Joe’s (state) experience also had a great impact on us.”
Morrell, Hultberg and Griffiths all return to their teams for one more year and they hope to build on All-State junior seasons.
“My goal next year is to get to state, then advance as far as I can when I get there,” Morrell said. “Another goal is for our team to get there. That’s been my No. 1 goal since I’ve started playing tennis, so we’ve just got to get back to work.”
“It was a great, fun year,” Hultberg said. “My goals and expectations (for next season) is for our team to make it to state and for myself to make it individually. ... I have never made it to state as a team, so we will work very hard this offseason to make it happen.”
“The most simple of the goals will be to return, but I’d say even win a couple rounds in the main draw. (I’d also like to) get another All-Conference, win another section (championship),” Griffiths said. “Every year, I got to work harder because I know there will always be new players and better players coming in or improving, and I fully intend on going all-out this next season and putting in the hours to get to a new level of tennis I have not reached.”
As for O’Connell, his stellar six-year high school tennis career comes to a close and he couldn’t have been happier to end it at state.
“This last year for me was amazing. It didn’t hit me until playing the last few points, but playing tennis the last six years was incredible,” he said.