Hietala sets new standard for Duluth tennis

John Gilbert

Duluth East senior Aili Hietala has spent her last six seasons playing No. 1 singles for Duluth East, but with no state tournament this year, this week’s Section 7AA meet at Longview will have to do.

The fall “major league” high school sports — football for boys and volleyball for girls — will both get late-starting seasons after all, the Minnesota State High School League has declared. But they, along with those who have been able to compete during this Covid-19 stifled season — boys and girls soccer, cross country and girls tennis — will not have state tournaments to provide a fitting conclusion.

Nobody can feel too positive about not having a state tournament, but among those high on the list of most disappointed might come from the Hietala household. Joe Hietala is Duluth East’s football coach, so his entire “family” of players can be excited about starting to play on Friday, but disappointed because there will be no Prep Bowl, nor the sectionals that lead up to it.

But across the breakfast table, East senior Aili Hietala has remained upbeat as she goes into this week’s Section 7AA tennis meet as prohibitive favorite to win at No. 1 singles. Hietala is the closest thing Duluth has ever had as a true tennis prodigy, having made the East varsity as a seventh grader and winding up at No. 1 singles — where she has remained as an eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and now as a 12th grader.

Hietala and East got a first-round bye and will face Grand Rapids-Greenway Thursday at 3:30 p.m. at Longview. Grand Rapids-Greenway beat Cloquet-Esko-Carlton-Carlton 6-1 Monday to reach the semifinals, and it should be a highly competitive match. Princeton is at Hibbing in the other semifinal, after they each won 7-0 over Denfeld and Hermantown, respectively.

Aili Hietala’s career has been spectacular, although she was sidetracked by a semifinal loss in the 2019 state tournament. She came right back to win the third-place match, all of which sent her into this year needing only a state championship to climax her senior year and brilliant prep career.

Instead, no state tournament. The highest Hietala and the Greyhounds can go is the Section 7AA tournament championship. The people who might be the most disappointed are college tennis coaches, who have been robbed of a chance to watch and recruit Hietala out of the pressure-cooker of the state tournament. The sectional will have to suffice for them, too, although it hasn’t helped Hietala narrow her choices of where to play the next four years.

CEC scoring star Drake Schramm breaks for the Hermantown goal, leading an 8-0 victory for the unbeaten Lumberjacks.

Meanwhile, we need to check the water up around Cloquet, where the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton-Carlton boys soccer team and the Cloquet-Carlton girls soccer team both came into this week undefeated as Lake Superior Conference champions.
The boys, led by Drake Schramm, the area’s leading goal-scorer, and adopted brothers Jordan and Elijah  Aultman, from Sierra Leone, plus Paddy Genereau and a herd of other top players, overran a good Hermantown team 8-0 last week. The girls, facing far tougher balance in competition, was undefeated until Duluth East avenged an earlier 3-2 loss by beating Cloquet-Carlton 4-2 Monday night.

That, too, should be a great section tournament or two, without a state tournament climax.

NHL bubbles succeed

The problems with getting infected with Covid-19 has been widely reported for Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NFL. All of them have had players quarantined and games postponed because of players testing positive for the virus. And the colleges that rushed to start football early also have had breakdowns and cancellations.

Then there’s the NHL. Nobody likes to give commissioner Gary Bettman credit for much these days, but when he made the decision on how the NHL would approach the “official” ending to this past season, and then a selective playoff to lead up to the Stanley Cup, the whining could be heard from Vancouver to Tampa Bay.

To recount, they split the East and West into two pods, after preliminary rounds that eliminated teams such as the Wild, and sorted out the seedings. Then Bettman and his crew selected Toronto for the East and Edmonton for the West. A lot of American fans grumbled, because Minnesota, New York, Boston, and several places in California and the Southwest wanted the host label.

Bettman, however, took not of how efficiently and disciplined Toronto and Edmonton had been for staying clean and fighting off the pandemic, and he chose those two sites. The teams were all placed in hotels as near to the modern arenas as possible, and, since no fans would be allowed, they stayed quarantined and walked to and from the arenas, without being allowed to go out and mingle or have a good time socially.

When it got down to the division finals, all games were held in Edmonton. Tampa Bay overcame the New York Islanders to win the East, while Dallas outmuscled Vegas to win the West. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup with a stirring six-game triumph.

Bettman, interviewed on the NHL satellite radio station on Sirius, gave enormous credit to the players, coaches, management, hotels, arenas and officials, and explained that the league studied carefully and came up with preparatory plans for each team to get ready for brief training camps, then more plans for training camp itself, and then for the competition itself. Bettman said: “From pre-training camp through the Stanley Cup, we tested all the players every day. We conducted a total of 33,000 tests, and we didn’t have one single test come back positive.”

Now that … is incredible. All the other sports, all the other pro and college leagues, and all the presidents men in the White House should have taken careful note of everything the NHL did, and then copy it. And let me be the first to congratulate Gary Bettman for an amazing job, well done.

Just for comparison, let’s look at the University of Minnesota, which is hustling to get a late start on fall sports. Since September 1, they conducted 2,183 tests and found 55 positives. In July and August, there were 43 positives out of 1,406 tests. That’s far from the worst, but this virus is not something we can play fast and loose with. We need to buckle down and make steps to contain it, so that we can get back to buying tickets to watch UMD play hockey!

We still have a lot to discuss about the Twins and the Vikings, but for now, let’s make sure we’ve got a comfortable chair and maybe pop s bowlful of corn, and grab a Perrier and then watch the 7:20 p.m. Vikings game at Seattle. Focus in on Kirk Cousins, our guy, going against Russell Wilson, their guy, and see if you can determine why the Seahawks are heading toward the Super Bowl and the Vikings are headed to a high draft choice.