It was no surprise that the elder Duluth East, who was cut off at No.1 in singles during the six college years, swept her opponent 6-0, 6-0.
After all, love-love describes Hietala’s feelings about tennis.
“It’s super fast; I feel like I should be in seventh grade instead of being the oldest on the team, ”said Hietala. “Each year has been amazing and I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”
After the Minnesota State High School League voted against hosting fall tournaments on Thursday during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Hietala’s final tournament in a Greyhounds uniform will be Section 7AA meet. It will only be a team competition (East is the No.1 seed in the northern subsection), leaving Hietala with no chance to defend his individual title and no chance of winning his first state championship. class AA (his best result was third).
“Obviously it’s sad to hear because I’ve been there every year,” Hietala said of a visit to Minneapolis in late October. “My last year would have been amazing to have that last goodbye, but on the other hand, I’m super happy that we at least had one season this fall.”
The coronavirus not only wreaked havoc in a shortened preparation season, but also closed the National Junior Circuit in the summer. It’s a circuit that 17-year-old Hietala had been on since the age of 10.
Those tournaments involved long drives to warm up venues with her father Joe, the Duluth East football coach, and her mother Heather, a former Division I tennis player from Arkansas State, at the wheel.
“There was definitely a lot of fighting, but we got through it,” Aili said jokingly.
Heather has fond memories of that time.
“We have made many long trips and enjoyed every moment of it,” she said. “I thought it was quality time. These were our family trips.
The summer tennis circuit and the resulting ranking system is what many college coaches rely on to recruit players. Without this option, it is more difficult to find the right college to play.
“A lot of those high school kids who don’t have the opportunity to play in these summer tournaments and not have a state tournament are hurting them,” East coach Lee Kruger said. “They won’t have the final look of the collegiate teams. But good college programs tend to find good players and that’s what she’s banking on. Aili will get back to her feet no matter where she goes.
Hietala hopes to play Division I tennis, but has not revealed which schools she is considering.
“It was more difficult to attract colleges since there were no (summer) tournaments or state tournaments,” said the right-hander. “But there are still a lot of big schools looking for players. I just have to decide which one I want to go to.
Her parents will support her in whatever she decides, even if it means getting back in the car for longer trips to watch her play.
“We just want her to be happy,” Heather Hietala said. “When it comes to her tennis, if it’s something she wants to do, then something will fall into place that will get her excited.”
For the next few weeks, her daughter is looking forward to finishing the season with her teammates. Oddly enough, a season without any serious challenges to his dominance of Northland has been enjoyable.
“It was a lot of fun with less pressure and less stress,” said Aili.
His last game on Thursday made his mother think about the end.
“It was very bittersweet,” she said. “Tennis has been a big part of our life, our summers, our travels and our family time together.”