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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

The Making of Champions

I love to win. Let’s just put that out there. Who doesn’t? But what makes a champion?

I witnessed history last week. The scoreboard says that the Edina high school girls tennis team, for the first time in twenty years – let that sink in, twenty years – will not be state AA champions.

That’s what the scoreboard says.

What it does not say is that the girls poured every bit of themselves onto that court. Under the pressure of enormous expectations and a glaring spotlight, they accepted defeat graciously and with utmost sportsmanship.

The scoreboard says that the Mahtomedi high school girls team was the team that finally unseated Edina, 4-3 in the semifinals, on their way to their first state championship.

That’s what the scoreboard says. What it does not say is how they got there. (You will need to skip to the end if you are dying to know).

Watching this epic match, I was cheering for everyone. Because out of the 20 players playing, 15 were TLC campers. When you get to know people on both sides, you don’t cheer only for one or the other. That’s like rooting against your children. You cheer for each to try their best and respect their teammates and opponents.

At the end of the day, it was wildly successful. Players on both sides dove for shots, high fived, clapped rackets, and rode the emotional roller coaster. When an entire season – when 19 years – comes down to 7-5 in the third, this is a remarkable achievement.

When it was over, I cried. For the Edina kids and their sadness. And for the Mahtomedi kids and their happiness. I – along with everyone in the stands – was spent.

I turned to Les Zellmann, St. James’ high school coach – whose team was once again in the Class A state tournament and who has built a program of integrity, humility, and class – and said, “I cannot imagine anyone else I would like to be standing beside witnessing this history take place.”

Except maybe one other person. Who was otherwise engaged. Steve Paulson, Edina’s coach. Steve, like Les, has built a program on integrity, humility, and class. As soon as the match ended, Steve was the first person to reach the victorious Mahtomedi kids and congratulate them. Then he went straight to console and congratulate his own players.

Fittingly, these two coaches were just inducted into the Minnesota High School Tennis Coaches Hall of Fame together on Monday. And I was witnessing why. For Steve, it’s not about the 19 titles in a row. It’s about the kids and the lessons they can learn. Which is why, every year Edina has won, I’ve never begrudged it, always celebrated it. Because when we have taught his kids at TLC, we have seen what he is about by the way they conduct themselves at camp.

Photo: MTCA

Photo: MTCA

For Les, it’s not how many kids get to state or win state or even win a match. It’s about how many kids get to play. He has devoted his life to expanding opportunities for kids who never otherwise would have had the chance.

So there I was, watching history with one coach I admire standing next to me, and another I admire congratulating the opponents and setting the example of how it can be done.

But what I am about to mention now – yes, here it comes – is the group of Mahtomedi girls who had just done the unthinkable. Nine of the ten had been to TLC, as well as even more on JV who did not get to play yesterday. They always come to Tennis & Life as a team. They come to a regular junior camp, not tournament players camp. A couple years ago, I said to one of the top players that she might want to consider coming to tournament players camp instead. Her response was immediate and emphatic. “Oh, no! That would mean we would have to break up the team! This is about the team, not me.”

I witnessed history last week. The scoreboard said there was one winner. But, to me, there were four champions. Les. Steve. Edina. Mahtomedi. In every sense of the word that matters.


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