Natalie Kinkel accepted the challenge of taking over the No. 1 singles spot for the Park Rapids girls tennis team this season.
Playing against the top singles players in the area helped the Park Rapids junior qualify for her first state Class A tournament.
Kinkel entered the Section 8A tournament at Courts Plus in Fargo as the No. 2 seed in singles behind Roseau's Jodi Ostroski. Kinkel advanced to the finals before dropping a 6-2, 6-2 decision to Ostroski. Kinkel rebounded to defeat Staples-Motley's Kelsi Peterson, the No. 4 seed, 6-0, 6-0 in a true-second match to secure her trip to state.
"Natalie had a great season and handled the transition well. She has been on varsity since seventh grade, so she knew what to expect. She has watched many matches and knows that No. 1 singles is going to be a little tougher, but that she can play with them," said Park Rapids head coach Brianne Morris. "I felt Natalie's chances were good to make it to state. She played some tough opponents this season that prepared her for sections."
"I played some (No.) 1 singles last year, so I was used to playing there," said Kinkel. "All of the good singles players from last year graduated, so I was playing the same people that I was playing last year."
After being the No. 4 seed in singles in her section debut as a freshman and going 1-1, Kinkel played doubles last season with Drew Hilmanowski. That duo entered as the No. 2 seed, but ended up placing third.
Kinkel used that experience and the challenge of playing No. 1 singles this season to prepare her for another run at the state tournament.
During the regular season, Kinkel went 18-8 at No. 1 singles, including a 7-5 record against Section 8A opponents. All five of those losses were to Ostroski and Crookston's Ally Tiedemann. Ostroski defeated Kinkel 6-1, 6-1 and 6-1, 6-0 during the regular season and 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals of the section team tournament while Tiedemann defeated Kinkel 6-1, 6-1 and 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 during the regular season. Ostroski finished third at the section tournament last season, defeating Perham's Josie Beachy. Staples-Motley's Izabella Edin defeated Park Rapids' Julia Smith in the championship match. Edin, Smith and Beachy were all seniors last season, making Ostroski the favorite to win the section title this season.
Kinkel defeated all her other section opponents, including Perham's Makayla Melvin twice by scores of 6-0, 6-0 in a dual meet and 3-6, 6-2, 10-4 in the championship match of the Mid-State Conference tournament and Peterson twice by scores of 7-5, 6-4 in a dual meet and 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the section team tournament. Melvin entered the section tournament as the No. 3 seed.
Kinkel also defeated Wadena-Deer Creek's Lindy Jones (6-0, 6-0), East Grand Forks' Bailey McMahon (6-0, 6-1) and Parkers Prairie's Abby Burquest (6-1, 6-2). Burquest was the No. 7 seed and McMahon was the No. 9 seed in singles while Jones elected to play doubles.
When Tiedemann chose to defend her section doubles title with Amy Follette, Kinkel moved up to the No. 2 seed in singles and easily advanced to the championship match.
Kinkel opened with a 6-0, 6-0 win over East Grand Forks' Kayla Partlow and followed with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Burquest in the quarterfinals on Oct. 13. Partlow was the No. 15 seed.
In the semifinals on Oct. 14, Kinkel defeated Wadena-Deer Creek's Abby Westrum 6-2, 6-3 before falling to Ostroski in the title match. Westrum, the No. 6 seed, upset Melvin in the quarterfinals.
"My confidence was pretty high. I thought I was going to go (to state)," said Kinkel. "I was ready to go. I knew I could beat everybody and get to the finals. I just wanted to give it my all against Jodi. I was hoping I could beat her so I didn't have to play a true-second match."
Peterson defeated Westrum in the third-place match to earn a shot at a true-second match and a state berth. Kinkel took control of that match from the start to qualify for state.
"I knew the first two rounds were going to be a little easier for Natalie, but I didn't expect her to breeze through the semifinals as quickly as she did. That was nice to see, especially knowing that she was going to have a tough finals match with Jodi," said Morris. "She played Jodi the best she has ever played her. She was in nearly every game. Jodi was just able to put away the points when needed. Before the true-second match, I just told her to go out and play like she has all year and she'd be fine. Natalie was very serious and not saying much. She was in a zone. She had just played Kelsi and she knew what to do. Natalie got the first game and I believe she was able to relax and Kelsi became very frustrated."
"I was a little nervous, but I knew I could beat her (Peterson)," said Kinkel. "I beat her in team a couple days before, so I had a lot of confidence."
Kinkel will face Katie Mulvey of Trinity School at River Ridge in her state debut Thursday at 8 a.m. at the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis. Mulvey is the No. 3 seed while Blake's Arlina Shen is the No. 2 seed in the lower bracket. Blake's Lainey Axell is the No. 1 seed while Cindy Li of Winona Cotter is the No. 4 seed in the upper bracket. Kinkel will enter state with a 24-10 season record and 89-47 career record.
"I expect Natalie to play hard and have fun. She has been there to watch, so she knows what the competition is like," said Morris. "She accomplished her goal of making it, so now is the fun part that she's worked all these years for."
"This has been one of my goals since I started playing varsity in seventh grade," said Kinkel about qualifying for state. "There are a lot of good players there. I'm hoping to win a match. If not, I'm hoping to at least win a set."
SECTION 8A SINGLES
Jodi Ostroski, Roseau, over Elysa Christensen, Crookston, 6-0, 6-0; Bailey McMahon, East Grand Forks, over Haylee Wold, Staples-Motley, by default; Brianna Schwantz, Perham, over Madison Packer, Wadena-Deer Creek, 6-2, 6-1; Kelsi Peterson, Staples-Motley, over Madeline Schroeder, Parkers Prairie, 6-1, 6-0; Makayla Melvin, Perham, over Chloe Johnson, Park Rapids, 6-1, 6-3; Abby Westrum, Wadena-Deer Creek, over Hannah Street, Crookston, 6-2, 7-5; Abby Burquest, Parkers Prairie, over Bria Dale, Roseau, 6-3, 6-4; Natalie Kinkel, Park Rapids, over Kayla Partlow, East Grand Forks, 6-0, 6-0.
Ostroski over McMahon 6-0, 6-0; Peterson over Schwantz 6-2, 6-1; Westrum over Melvin 3-6, 6-2, 6-3; Kinkel over Burquest 6-2, 6-0.
Ostroski over Peterson 1-6, 6-3, 6-0; Kinkel over Westrum 6-2, 6-3.
Ostroski over Kinkel 6-4, 6-3 (title); Peterson over Westrum 6-2, 6-4 (third); Kinkel over Peterson 6-0, 6-0 (true second).
SECTION 8A DOUBLES
Ally TIedemann/Amy Follette, Crookston, over Analise Marquardt/Kaylee Esterberg, Parkers Prairie, 6-0, 6-0; Lindy Jones/Marleen Gari, Wadena-Deer Creek, over Elle Birkeland/Johanna Winkels, Perham, 6-1, 6-3; Kacie Bjerk/Haley Ostgaard, Roseau, over McKenna Aitchison/Delaney Aaker, East Grand Forks, 6-4, 6-2; Claire Wolhowe/Anna Willgohs, Staples-Motley, over Kate Schmiedt/Corra Endres, Wadena-Deer Creek, 6-0, 6-1; Jenna Dietrich/Maggie Dietrich, East Grand Forks, over Michelle Swyter/Jade Lenins, Perham, 6-1, 6-3; Jaeden Lizakowski/Catherine Tiedemann, Crookston, over Olivia Wallace/Kendra Coborn, Park Rapids, 6-4, 7-6; Tori Hilmanowski/Abby Morris, Park Rapids, over Megan Arens/Katelyn Schlosser, Parkers Prairie, 6-1, 6-2; Lauren Johnson/Kate Wensloff, Roseau, over Bryn Williams/Katie Johnson, Staples-Motley, 6-0, 6-0.
Tiedemann/Follette over Jones/Gari 6-1,6 -2; Bjerk/Ostgaard over Wolhowe/Willgohs 6-2, 7-6 (7-4); J. Dietrich/M. Dietrich over Lizakowski/Tiedemann 6-4, 6-4; Johnson/Wensloff over Hilmanowski/Morris 6-2, 6-0.
Tiedemann/Follette over Bjerk/Ostgaard 6-0, 6-2; Johnson/Wensloff over J. Dietrich/M. Dietrich 6-2, 6-1.
Tiedemann/Follette over Johnson/Wensloff 6-2, 6-2 (title); J. Dietrich/M. Dietrich over Bjerk/Ostgaard (third).