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Raptors claw to third at state

Junior John Pratt and senior Greg Sharrow celebrate following their win at No. 1 doubles in East Ridge’s 4-3 win over Elk River in the third-place match at the state tournament on June 4 at the University of Minnesota. (Bulletin photo by Jace Frederick) 1 / 3
Freshman Ben Van Der Sman gets set to return a volley during his win at No. 3 singles in East Ridge’s 4-3 win over Elk River in the third-place match at the state tournament on June 4 at the University of Minnesota. Van Der Sman also qualified for individual state in the singles bracket, where he fell in the first round on June 5. (Bulletin photo by Jace Frederick)2 / 3
Junior Vishaal Gupta serves during he and senior Yifan Lu’s victory at No. 2 doubles in East Ridge’s 4-3 win over Elk River in the third-place match at the state tournament on June 4 at the University of Minnesota. (Bulletin photo by Jace Frederick)3 / 3

Senior Greg Sharrow knew this season had a chance to be special for East Ridge -- the Raptors returned every varsity player from a year ago.

But even he couldn’t have expected the Raptors to finish as the third-best team in the state after going 2-1 in the state tournament this week at the University of Minnesota.

“I knew we were going to do well this year, [but] I didn’t think we would go this far,” he said. “I’m really happy that we did.”

East Ridge entered the state tournament as a massive underdog. After a 14-1 season, the Raptors were unseeded and slotted to play No. 1 Mounds View -- the only team to defeat East Ridge all season -- in the first round.

“Everybody thought we were going to get run over here,” Sharrow said. “That Mounds View was going to sweep us.”

That didn’t happen -- not even close. Led by Sharrow and senior Yifan Lu’s upset of the Mustangs’ No. 1 doubles tandem, East Ridge toppled Mounds View by a 4-3 tally.

“We were just really motivated to do it, because we had lost to them earlier in the season,” said freshman Ben Van Der Sman, who won at No. 2 singles.

Van Der Sman said in the days leading up to the state tournament, he and his teammates were in great spirits, constantly pumping one another up.

“We had it in us to win,” he said. “At the state tournament, everybody wanted to step up their game. We all did that and I think that’s what got us the win in the end.”

East Ridge fell to Minnetonka by a narrow 4-3 margin in the semifinals, as the Skippers won all three doubles matches.

“They were a great team,” Sharrow said. “We played pretty well there. They ended up beating us, but not by much, just a couple of points.”

Still, East Ridge responded in the third-place match, as it defeated No. 3 Elk River 4-3 behind a clean sweep in three doubles matches.

“They’ve always been fighters, but they really fought hard here,” East Ridge coach Suzie Heideman said. “We said to expect the best tennis and that’s truly what it was on both ends. I’m just super proud of them.”

The third-place finish capped a history season for East Ridge as the program won the Suburban East Conference championship, earned the No. 1 seed in section 3AA and won the section to advance to the first state tournament in program history.

“It feels great,” Sharrow said of the historic season. “I’ve been on the team for five years now. I know we’ve had good people coming through, but this has been probably the best team and [Heideman] has really brought us together as well.”

After losing no one from last year’s team and bringing in another influx of talent, Heideman said she had 15 varsity-quality players at her disposal this season. That made it difficult to put together a lineup of just 10 players each week.

“That’s the problem that I had is 15 great players and 10 spots, so I’ve agonized over that position a lot,” she said. “It’s tough and all the boys seem to understand it, it’s just a tough pill to swallow when they don’t get that spot.”

But the competition also provided motivation for the players to work hard in the offseason in an attempt to secure varsity playing time.

“There was a lot of talk in the offseason about who was going to make it, who was not going to make it,” Heideman said. “That fueled the fire as like ‘I’ve got to work hard to make it,’ so it was contagious.”

Similar competition for roster spots may be tough to generate next season, as the Raptors lose six seniors from this year’s squad.

“They’re one of the biggest foundation of our team,” Van Der Sman said. “We’ve got a couple of guys on here who are just the heart of the team. It’s going to be hard to lose that next year.”

Still, the Raptors will return all four of their traditional singles starters, including Van Der Sman, who finished second in sectional play to advance to state in the individuals, as well, where he fell in the first round. The returning youth has created optimism for continued success. At the team banquet prior to state, Sharrow told his younger teammates he was “excited” for their future.

“We still have all four of us [at singles], and we’re going to have a good chance there,” Van Der Sman said. “Our doubles may be hit a little bit, but I think everybody with training in the summer and throughout the offseason, we should be good for next year.”

That’s important, because while this year’s breakthrough was fantastic for East Ridge tennis, Heideman said it’s important to continue to build on the success. She said the outgoing seniors have established a bar of excellence that people now expect from the Raptors moving forward.

“So there’s an excitement in the community and with the younger kids because they want to work hard and eventually play for East Ridge varsity tennis, and it’s going to be tough,” she said. “Once you have a year like this you hope that you can stay there and prove that you can do it over again.”