For recent Owatonna graduate Lincoln Maher, the decision to play tennis at the next level was a relatively easy one.
He began playing at the age of 6 at the West Hills Tennis Center under the tutelage of Pete Tellijohn and fell in love with the game instantly. To him, there’s just something so comforting about the sport, particularly singles play.
“I love team sports, but there’s just something different about being able to win a match by yourself and not have to worry about or rely on anyone else along the way. You can just be at your level and compete against other people at your level,” Maher relayed over the phone.
A backup center on the 2021 boys basketball team that reached the Class AAAA state tournament, Maher has always stood above — literally and metaphorically — the competition he faced as a high schooler. The 6-foot-5-incher made his varsity debut as an eighth grader as a doubles player, but gradually worked his way up to playing No. 1 singles where he remained for a good chunk of his Huskies’ career. Tennis coach Curt Matejcek noted Maher’s noted improvement as each season passed, both on and off the court. By his senior season, Maher was voted team captain and functioned as the squad’s vocal leader.
While he primarily played singles during the regular season, Maher teamed up with Caleb Schuler to play doubles during the Section 1AA tournament, a decision that was partially spur of the moment but mostly long in the making. Maher and Schuler would frequently match up against Charlie Tucker and Connor Whalen, Owatonna’s No. 1 doubles team during the regular season, at the end of practices, honing their skills but also weighing whether or not they would stand a chance as a pairing in real competition.
“I was talking with Caleb about it at the beginning of the season. Like, ‘Are we going to avoid some of those big hitters and play doubles together?’ We kind of liked the idea and then we got a chance to play doubles against Mayo at home and we beat their [No. 1] doubles team in a third set...I think that kind of solidified it because we pulled out a huge match,” Maher said. “That kind of fueled the fire and we didn’t look back from there.”
The two finished in third place during section play, missing out on a state tournament but solidifying that both athletes made the correct decision.
Maher’s combination of size, lateral quickness and power drew interest from numerous NCAA Division III tennis programs from across the nation. Again, the decision to play tennis was a no-brainer, but where to attend school was a more difficult decision.
Trips to St. John’s University near St. Cloud and Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio went well. The coaching staffs were friendly, his potential future teammates helpful and the campuses lovely, but the moment he stepped foot on the property of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, he was hooked.
Maher, who will be majoring in political science and on the pre-law track, liked the size of the school, the overall atmosphere of the campus and the city of La Crosse as a whole. He was intrigued by the school’s commitment to the tennis program, they’re currently in the process of upgrading their tennis facilities, and the overall cost of the school was appealing. In the end, UW-La Crosse was too much of the total package to turn down.
He’s unsure what, exactly, he will play next fall for the Eagles, but would love the opportunity to play both singles and doubles, something that wasn’t possible in high school.
“I really enjoy playing both and the different things you get out of each,” he said. “I would really like to play both all four years, but wherever I get put, I’ll be more than happy to play.”
Maher admits that his game still has some room for growth. His overall execution could be better, he’d like to be more consistent and his serving locations could be more diverse, but overall he believes he’ll be able to accomplish all of these tasks under the guidance of the Eagles’ coaching staff.
Matejcek agrees, believing his physical profile is prime for improvement. Maher’s old coach believes that by the time he is in his 20s, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
That said, “there are no gimmes at the next level,” according to Matejcek. However, Maher’s years of competing against some of the best that southern Minnesota has to offer should have him positioned well to succeed in college.