Many sports movies follow a similar arc: underdogs overcoming major obstacles, finding a powerful source of inspiration and finally capturing hearts and hardware alike.
Hollywood had no part in the Bemidji High School boys tennis season, though. The Lumberjacks did all that on their own.
BHS made history in 2021, and, perhaps more than that, did so during a major moment of need in the local tennis community.
So it’s no surprise that the program is adding one more honor: The Pioneer has named Bemidji boys tennis as its 2020-21 Team of the Year.
First introduced in 2020, the Pioneer Team of the Year award is meant to annually recognize the accomplishments of one area team from the preceding school year that most impressed fans and media alike.
BHS boys tennis beat out a number of worthy candidates this time around, including Bemidji State men’s hockey, BSU women’s basketball and BHS football.
But, much like most of their opponents on the court, not many could contend with the netsters of the spring.
A balance of lamentation and celebration
Before the 2021 season even began, Bemidji had lost plenty.
In April 2020, the Minnesota State High School League moved to cancel the spring season in response to the rising coronavirus pandemic. Ten seniors on the team never had the chance to further the progress that had ended one team point shy of a state berth in 2019.
Even worse, former head coach Mark Fodness, who led the program from 1986-93 and again from 2011-20, tragically died in November 2020 due to a heart attack. The news shocked a community widely impacted by Fodness’ influence in the classroom and in athletics.
Yet, ready or not, the beginning of a new season dawned as the team grappled with terrible losses. The season was both a celebration of finally getting to play and a reminder of all that had changed since the last volley.
Kyle Fodness, in his first year as head coach after taking over for his father, saw the team start just 2-2 with losses to Alexandria and Thief River Falls. But then they turned it on.
Bemidji won nine straight matches, including a 4-3 victory over the Prowlers to avenge a loss just one week old. When the Lumberjacks met the Cardinals for the second time, however, Alexandria pulled off another 4-3 win to derail the BHS hot streak and keep a hold on its superiority.
But from then on, all the way to the state tournament, Bemidji didn’t lose again.
As the team marched through the season, an anchor atop the lineup guided the Lumberjacks day in and day out.
Senior Filippo Buffo, an Italian exchange student, was playing some of the best tennis in the Northland. He finished the regular season 14-0, and yet, much like his Lumberjacks, Buffo was far from done.
It’s not just him who deserves praise, though. Just to name a few, Noah Johnson was a forceful No. 2 singles player, while Michael Dickinson, Logan Jensen, John McNallan and Casey Rupp all blended together at the top two doubles spots with plenty of success.
A 12-3 regular season earned BHS the North No. 2 seed in the Section 8AA Tournament. The dance almost ended with the opener, as Brainerd strongly threatened to pull off an upset in an ultimate 4-3 Bemidji victory.
The slim win brought the Lumberjacks into the final four of the section, where mighty Becker -- the South’s No. 1 seed and section favorite -- waited to strike next.
BHS had other plans.
With Buffo at top singles and three doubles teams that knew they had to deliver, the Jacks pulled off a 4-3 upset to advance to the section championship later that day. If they wanted to reach state, though, they’d have to go through none other than Alexandria, the same team that had brushed Bemidji aside twice in the regular season. The same team that defeated BHS in the 2019 title match.
Rivals as they may be, there was no ill will between the programs. During their first regular-season meeting, Alexandria coaches Dave Ronning and John Schmidt even presented the Fodness family with flowers and tennis balls inscribed with their tributes to Mark Fodness as a gesture of their sympathies.
But it didn’t stop both teams from doing all they could to reach the state tournament. The Lumberjacks loaded up on the singles side this time around, and Buffo, Dickinson, Johnson and Jensen were all victorious, as were Max Larson and Jack McNallan at third doubles.
For the first time since 1973, Bemidji was the section champion.
“You always get a little extra boost when you’re playing for someone other than yourself,” Kyle Fodness said that day. “It sounds cliche, but I think everyone knew we were playing for a little bit more. We want to win, but we have a little extra juice.
“… The boys really played like underdogs out here. If they were an underdog, like we probably were in our two matches today, they really embraced that mentality. And that’s been the mentality of our previous coach.”
The next day, Buffo completed his blitz through the Section 8AA Individual Tournament, becoming perhaps the program’s first-ever singles section champion. He improved his perfect record to 23-0, having won 46 sets and losing two.
History in real time
In the opening round of the Class AA state tournament, Bemidji lost 7-0 to eventual champion Edina. Two days later, Buffo lost in straight sets during the individual singles tournament.
But there’s a reason why those details are buried so low in this story: They’re not that important. Yes, it happened, and yes, it is part of the tale. But it’s a footnote in comparison to the history, the redemption and the triumph of a team that overcame far too much to be weighed down by something as trivial as a final score.
Many who witnessed the season would argue that Bemidji’s was more successful than Edina’s.
The Pioneer picked Bemidji boys tennis as its Team of the Year because of reasons like that. A pandemic, an untimely death and plenty of steep competition proved to be no match for a group of kids who represented so much behind the scenes. Everything meant to slow them down only spurred them on.
Now that’s a Hollywood ending.