James Much felt good headed into Section 7-1A individual tournament Wednesday, May 26, and Thursday, May 27.
Being the No. 2 seed, Much needed just one win Wednesday to advance to the semifinals. He did so quite easily and dispatched Hermantown’s Chase Sams 6-1, 6-1.
In the semifinals the next day, Much beat Hibbing’s Isaac Hildenbrand 6-4, 6-2 to reach the finals. With no true second-place match, Much knew he clinched a spot to state after his semifinals win.
“I just wanted to stay out of my own head,” he said. “I really wanted to just focus on my strategy and just reach that end goal.”
In the Section 7-1A finals, Much lost to Virginia’s Jared Delich 6-1, 6-1.
Going into the second day of sections, Much said he felt comfortable because he had played and beaten the opponents before.
“I was confident, but I didn’t want to assume too much and go in with the mindset that it would be an easy match,” Much said. “I knew it would be challenging because every player in our section has the chance to win and I didn’t want to overlook anyone.”
In the semifinals, one of the big keys was calming his nerves.
“In the match for state, I would look over at my coaches and teammates and do something silly to keep my mind off tennis,” Much said. “I would then take a few deep breaths and get my focus back for the next point.”
Aitkin head coach Jen Waldorf noticed maturity out of Much to fight through the nerves she was seeing him have in the semifinal match.
“He just kept looking back and telling us ‘I got this, I got this,’” Waldorf said. “It was his confidence. He knew and trusted in his skills and let that take over.”
Much described himself as elated after winning the semifinal match and reaching state. There was also some satisfaction.
“Obviously, last year we didn’t have a season, so this year coming back and making it to state and being the first Aitkin single player to go to state it felt great,” Much said. “I got the ball from my opponent and I immediately shoved it in my pocket.”
Much’s record stands at 12-10 and he noted that playing in the Granite Ridge Conference helped him have confidence in the section tournament.
“In our conference, we play teams that have state-ranked players,” Much said. “So when I go out and play those types of teams it’s really great and an amazing challenge even though I don’t think I won a conference match this year. I’m still going to state in the section and I hope that reflects greatly on the conference.”
Waldorf added: “He was the No. 2 player in the section, but his conference play really got him prepared for sections. He was playing against very, very talented players and that made him a better player. The section was fairly easy for him.”
Aitkin featured four seniors this year and Waldorf thought all of them stepped up as leaders. As a team, the Gobblers made it to the Section 7-1A finals and fell to Virginia.
“There was really no one that stepped up,” Waldorf said. “All four of the seniors were great leaders and were very positive with the younger kids. I had a great group of seniors and (Much) was one of them.”
Groundstrokes are a big part of Much’s game, but Waldorf wanted him to focus on playing smarter in 2021 and it has worked.
“He is a very good net player,” Waldorf said. “He is trying to add more to his game to be a complete player. He can do what he wants. He can hit from baseline and he can also play a finesse game. I think he has a good solid game especially after missing a year.”
During the year off last season, Much said he didn’t leave the house a lot because his parents were older and COVID-19 was a concern. He and his sister would sneak out in the middle of the night and go to tennis courts at Aitkin High School and play until 1 a.m. some nights.
“My parents had a lot of high-risk traits so I didn’t leave the house much,” he said. “But me and my sister would go play tennis at midnight when no one else was around. So my sister was great in helping me prepare in the offseason. She would hit with me for hours.”
One of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic hurt Much was he missed out on a chance to reach the 50-win milestone. Aitkin has a tennis milestone board of all the 50-game winners and state participants in the program. Much currently sits at 43 wins heading into state, but will still get on the board.
“Getting my name on our big accomplishment board is very satisfying,” Much said. “To know that I left a mark in some way.”
Much said he would rather be going to state than reaching 50 wins if he had to pick.
“The 50 wins would be nice, but I think it means so much more for the team to have someone go to state than to have someone get 50 wins,” he said.
Other notable performances:
Golf: Beck Erholtz, Staples-Motley, won the Mid-Minn at The Vintage at Staples with a 68 and won with a 73 at Cragun’s Legacy Courses.
Logan Herold, Pierz, won with a 76 at Blackberry Ridge Golf Club.
Baseball: Corbin Knapp, Pine River-Backus, went 4-4 with three runs and two RBIs against Crosby-Ironton.
Trevor Redding, Pine River-Backus, went 4-5 with two doubles, two runs and an RBI against Crosby-Ironton.
Josh Dykhoff, Wadena-Deer Creek, struck out 13 against Perham.
Jake Ince, Aitkin, tallied three hits including two doubles and five RBIs against Mesabi East.
Ryan Stuckmayer, Pierz, tallied three hits against Albany.
Highlights: He advanced to the Class 1A State Tournament.