COLUMN: Bemidji coaches and players overcome heartbreak on and off the court to write a storybook Section 8AA tournament finish
Kyle Fodness has big shoes to fill after his father, Mark, stepped down from coaching tennis last May. But after Mark tragically passed away in November, this boys tennis season became about so much more.
Sports create moments that are sometimes too perfect to script, and that's what happened Wednesday night in Sartell.
Bemidji, riding a 48-year state-tournament drought, knocked off the Section 8AA North and South top seeds to clinch a berth. While that alone is enough to write an intriguing story, it doesn't even tell the half of it.
The Lumberjacks beat Alexandria, a team that's been the thorn in their side for two seasons. The Cardinals punched their only ticket to the state tournament in 2019 by beating Bemidji 4-3. That day, Bemidji blew a 3-1 lead with three third-set losses.
During the course of the regular season, the Lumberjacks lost three times, with two of them coming at the hands of the Cardinals. Both times Bemidji blew 3-1 leads. But when it mattered the most this year, the Lumberjacks did something special. Not only did they knock off a respected rival 5-2 and avenged prior heartbreak, but they did it in a year unlike any other.
The Bemidji tennis programs endured the same COVID-19 hurdles other high schools did throughout the 2020-21 sports seasons, but they did it without their cornerstone. Longtime head coach Mark Fodness, who retired last May, passed away unexpectedly on Nov. 25, 2020.
Mark's son, Kyle, was faced with the challenge of tackling a bizarre season as the new head coach for the boys and girls team while picking up where his father left off. But heading into Wednesday, tasked with taking down two state-level teams, he kept thinking about what his dad used to say.
"My dad was an incredible coach," Kyle said. "Throughout his life, he used to say 'Play like you're an underdog, even when you're not.' You can't build that philosophy in a year, so I think that's rolled over from what he's taught these kids. It doesn't matter if you're the top seed or the eighth seed. You go out there and compete like an underdog."
It hasn't been the easiest year for Kyle, to say the least, but what sports can do is allow you to take a step back and be proud of something. While it hadn't hit him that Bemidji will get the chance to play for a state championship, Kyle is looking forward to letting his team's accomplishment sink in.
"It'll settle in a little bit more, but it's not about me," Kyle said. "As cliché as it sounds, the fortunate things from this year have come from the boys. This team, this family, has given us a great moment. But it's not my favorite moment from this year. Those moments are the bus rides and being able to watch these boys improve."
In my short conversation with Kyle, it was clear to me he values being a mentor more than being a winner, which, from all accounts, is precisely how his dad viewed the game as well. He respects the game and appreciates his competition, and it's why the first thing he did was talk about what kind of programs Dave Ronning has built in Alexandria.
"To compete with a team that we have a world of respect for is a privilege," Kyle said. "They are fortunate to have these coaches and these young men representing their school and community. From the parents to the players, they are a class act all of the way through. They have a group of young men that value sportsmanship and good character."
I've asked other coaches about how they view their opponents in the past. Usually, the answer is pretty standard– something like "Kudos to them for playing a good game." But what I learned on Wednesday is how highly these programs really think of each other.
I've covered games between Bemidji and Alexandria across all sports. Being that the two teams are often in the same section, the rivalry is more emotional at times compared to some of Alexandria's other recurring opponents. But in boys tennis, with the recent history that these teams have had, respect still comes first.
"We've won and lost the close ones," Kyle said. "Both of us have, but both of us have handled it the right way."
As Kyle read off the names of each player receiving a first-place medal, he thought about who his guys were fighting for and what it meant to bring a section championship home to Bemidji.
"They knew they were playing for something bigger than themselves," Kyle said. "You always play for your teammates, but to play for the guys that didn't get a senior year last year and a coach that's passed on his legacy, it's a great feeling. It's the culmination of a great season with a great group of boys."
Jared Rubado is a sports reporter and columnist for the Alexandria Echo Press.