May 18—SIOUX FALLS — Luke Jerke had not won a tournament all season prior taking the court for the Class A Flight 6 singles final.
The lone Mitchell High School player to reach the finals of the state tournament in singles took the court Tuesday at Huether Family Match Pointe and displayed the poise and precision of a savvy veteran.
Except Jerke is an eighth-grader.
The top seed in the bracket was undaunted, lacing balls down the line, while knowing when to put the perfect amount of touch on a ball or when to slam it into the ground for a point. Jerke was in control of the match from the start and dispatched Sioux Falls Christian senior Gavin Mulder, 6-2, 6-3, to win his first state championship.
The Kernels finished in fourth place with 339 points after beginning the Day Two in third. Sioux Falls Christian came away with the team championship, totaling 450 points. Yankton began the day fourth, but vaulted into second with 378.5 points. Huron was third with 373, while Lennox and Pierre tied for fifth with 259.5.
"It was really exciting. It was really nerve-racking, but really exciting," Jerke said. "I've gotten second in every other tournament, but I finally won. I'm pretty pumped."
While Jerke was calm and confident, Mulder was visibly frustrated throughout the match and it was an advantage for the Kernel. During the situations when Mulder appeared to have Jerke on the run, he was able to remain composed.
Jerke was at ease any time he was forced to play at the net and was more precise with the placement of his shots, including the game-winning point. When Jerke — who defeated Aberdeen Central's Palmer Johnson, 6-2, 7-6(3) in the semifinals — brought Mulder charging to the net he blooped a shot overtop that fell into a wide-open patch of the court.
Mitchell eighth-grader Luke Jerke wins the Class A Flight 6 singles championship over Sioux Falls Christian senior Gavin Mulder. #sdpreps pic.twitter.com/qTb5gt03di
— Nick Sabato (@NickSabatoMDR) May 18, 2021
"We always tell the kids you aren't going to win every point at the net, you just have to win a high percentage," MHS assistant coach Chad Larson said. "As coaches we keep track of that and we want our players to have that mental awareness when they're up at the net. I thought (Jerke) was fantastic up there. He did a great job of closing up on those volleys."
After breezing through the first set, Jerke jumped out to an early lead in the second. His confidence grew with a 3-2 lead in the second set, and after winning the next two games, Jerke knew the state title was within reach.
"After it was 3-2 and I won that game, I go, 'It's close and I can get it,'" Jerke said. "When I won the next one, I was pretty pumped and excited. At that point I was pretty sure it was over if I just kept playing well a little longer."
Kernels struggle on Day Two, build optimism for future
Mitchell's lone doubles finalists were Drake Jerke and Cameron Miller at Flight 3, but the duo dug an early hole against Yankton's Zac Briggs and Harrison Krajewski. The Kernels were able to rally to take the second set and all the momentum heading into the tiebreak.
But Briggs and Krajewski — who lost to Jerke and Miller twice during the regular season — scored the first five points of the game and Mitchell could not regain the momentum in a 6-3, 4-6, 10-2 loss.
"It's a championship match, there's momentum swings all over the place," MHS head coach Pat Moller said. "They took it early and we took it back in the second set. In the match tiebreak, we just couldn't get any momentum going and that's tennis. In a championship match those records don't matter. It's just about who's playing the best tennis at the time."
Connor Thelen took third at Flight 4 singles, blanking Huron's Moo Sher Shay, 8-0. Jack Vermeulen was third at Flight 5, nipping Spearfish's Brock Bacon, 9-8(1), in the third-place match.
Macon Larson dropped a three-set Flight 1 semifinal match to Huron's Eh Dah, 7-5, 3-6, 10-5, and then fell to Yankton's Gage Becker, 8-2, to finish fourth. Aidan Patrick also finished fourth at Flight 3, falling in an 8-5 third-place match to Sioux Falls Christian's Daniel Puumala. Tyler Loecker finished fifth at Flight 2, beating Pierre's Blake Judson in a 10-8 match.
Larson and Loecker dropped the Flight 1 doubles third-place match to Sioux Falls Christian's Puumala and Levenhagen, 8-2. Patrick and Thelen took fifth at Flight 2 doubles, defeating Lennox's Andrew Daugherty and Cody Plank, 8-1.
In total, the Kernels went 2-6 in the semifinals and 0-3 in third-place matches, but Moller was encouraged by his team's performance, particularly with limited prior state tournament experience. Aside from Miller — the lone senior in the lineup — each player is projected to return next season.
"We had a lot of guys who had never been to the state tournament before and never stepped foot in match-point," Moller said. "This experience will pay dividends for us next year."