What originally looked like an easy road back to the state girls tennis tournament before the season started turned into a rougher ride for Park Rapids senior Julia Smith.
Smith, who won the Section 8A title to earn her third consecutive trip to the state Class A tournament last fall, was expected to cap off her senior season with another trip to the Reed-Sweatt Family Tennis Center in Minneapolis.
Those expectations didn't change when Staples-Motley's Izabella Edin decided to return to high school tennis this season. Edin, who defeated Smith for the section title in 2014, elected to bypass high school tennis and concentrate on playing USTA Junior tennis during her junior season. Edin decided to return to high school tennis this year, making the Staples-Motley senior the favorite to win the section singles title.
That left Smith battling for the other state berth.
Leading up to this year's section tournament, Smith lost twice to Roseau's Jodi Ostroski and once to Crookston's Ally Tiedemann and was pushed to three sets in a win over Perham's Josie Beachy. Tiedemann and teammate Amy Follette were the defending section champs in doubles and were expected to defend that title this season, leaving four singles players in the running for the two state berths.
As expected, Edin went undefeated during the regular season to earn the No. 1 seed while Smith was awarded the No. 2 seed for the section tournament. Beachy earned the No. 3 seed while Ostroski was the No. 4 seed.
Smith lived up to her No. 2 seed by winning a true-second match over Ostroski to earn her fourth consecutive trip to state.
"After I heard Izabella was coming back, I was banking on getting second," said Smith. "I was a little worried about Josie and Jodi, but I felt confident. I just had to be patient and stay focused."
Smith relied on patience to battle her way to another state meet.
During the regular season, Smith posted a 7-4 record against section opponents. Smith defeated Parkers Prairie's Kathryn Burquest 6-1, 6-1; Tiedemann 6-1, 6-4; and Wadena-Deer Creek's Abby Westrum 6-0, 6-3 before falling to Edin 6-0, 6-2.
Smith had to rally to defeat Beachy 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 in a dual meet before defeating Beachy 6-3, 7-5 and falling to Edin 6-2, 6-0 to finish second at No. 1 singles at the Mid-State Conference tournament.
Smith then defeated East Grand Forks' Emma Dietrich 6-3, 6-1 and Parkers Prairie's Kamryn Arceneau 6-2, 6-2 in dual meets before dropping matches to Tiedemann (6-1, 2-6, 7-4) and Ostroski (6-4, 6-0) at Thief River Falls.
During the Section 8A team tournament, Smith defeated Beachy 6-2, 6-3 and lost to Ostroski 6-0, 6-4 before refocusing for the individual portion of the section tournament.
After opening with easy wins over No. 15 Megan Arens of Parkers Prairie (6-0, 6-1) and No. 10 Maggie Dietrich of East Grand Forks (6-0, 6-1), Smith reached her fourth straight section championship match with a decisive 6-0, 6-1 win over Beachy in the semifinals.
Edin claimed her second section title with a 6-0, 6-2 win over Smith, who had to play Ostroski in a true-second match for the other state berth. Ostroski defeated Beachy 6-2, 6-2 in the third-place match.
Smith took control in the true-second match early, jumping out to a 3-0 lead en route to a decisive 6-2, 6-1 victory and another trip to state.
"Julia had beaten everyone except Edin in the section, so being the No. 2 seed was a good spot for her," said Park Rapids head coach Brianne Morris. "I knew Julia would be ready come section time."
"I thought I played pretty well against Izabella and Jodi," said Smith. "I was dreading having to play another match. It was a flashback to my freshman year when I had to play a true-second match. I knew it was going to be a super long match (against Ostroski). I just had to wait for the short ball and attack."
Claiming her third section runner-up title put Smith in an elite group. Smith became only the second singles player in Park Rapids history to qualify for four state tournaments, joining Megan Reich. Smith's older sister Christina Smith also competed in four state tournaments, but three times in doubles.
Smith also joined an elite group of tennis players by becoming only the fourth member of the Park Rapids girls tennis team to surpass 100 career wins. Reich (136), Julia Renner (124) and Christina Smith (117) are the only Panthers with more wins than Julia Smith's 113.
As a freshman, Smith lost to Staples-Motley's Mikayla Wing 6-3, 6-2 in the section title match before defeating East Grand Forks' Chessa Jones 6-3, 6-1 in the true-second match to qualify for her first state tournament. Smith then went 1-1 in her state debut.
As a sophomore, Smith lost to Edin 6-2, 6-2 in the section finals before going 1-2 in her second state appearance.
Last season as a junior, Smith defeated Jones 6-1, 1-6, 6-2 in the section title match before going 1-1 in her third trip to state.
Smith faces Trinity School at River Ridge sophomore Katie Mulvey in a first-round match Thursday morning at 8. Mulvey is rated No. 4 in the latest state Class A poll and finished fourth in singles at last year's state tournament. Blake senior Libby Rickemann, the defending state champion, is the No. 1 seed while Edin is seeded No. 2 and Blake freshman Arlina Shen is seeded No. 3. Shen was the state runner-up last season.
Smith will be looking to cap off her fourth and final state trip by winning at least one match for the fourth year in a row.
"The competition is going to be tough, but Julia has some great experience and should be able to play with anyone," said Morris. "I want Julia to go down to state and have fun, play her best and play with confidence. I'm hoping she can go down there and earn herself a medal."
"It should be a classic time," said Smith, who will carry a 104-38 career record in singles and 113-41 overall record to state. "I definitely want to win at least one match and see if I can do some damage."