This fall, the American Rivers Conference stands alone. That puts Eau Claire Memorial grad Max Loen among the lucky ones, and he knows it.
“Every time I step on the court I always try to think over, like, ‘Man, no one’s really playing right now,” Loen said. “I seem to have an extra kick in my step and I’m having a lot more fun on the court.”
Loen, a freshman at Luther College, is competing in the only Division III conference playing college tennis this fall. The Norse, along with the A-R-C’s other eight members, gathered in Des Moines, Iowa late last month to put on a conference individual tournament.
And Loen, a two-time Big Rivers champion with the Old Abes, made the most of the only action he’ll see in these first few months on campus. He and his doubles partner, Brook Norwood, went 5-0 on Sept. 26 to kick off Loen’s collegiate career and claim the A-Doubles conference crown.
“Tennis got me through getting adjusted to college,” Loen said. “It led to success because I was having so much fun.”
Loen and Norwood, a freshman/senior combo, swept the round-robin format rather handily, winning four of the matches 8-3 and the other 8-2. The pair clinched the title against familiar foes, besting teammates Sakchham Karki and Dylan Wiemers.
Loen’s left a good first impression on the Luther staff, but head coach Adam Strand said the program already had high expectations for him to begin with. He was someone the staff recruited aggressively, Strand said partially because they expected he’d be able to have an immediate impact.
Stylistically, Loen reminds Strand of himself.
“He’s the first guy I’ve ever coached who serves left-handed and plays right-handed, which is exactly how I play,” Strand said. “It’s a little unorthodox, but his serve is pretty wicked. ... I think he’s got some stuff that can throw people off a little bit. One thing that really helps him on the doubles court is he’s eager to move forward and go to the net.”
Loen hadn’t competed with a team in over a year, since he was one of many local athletes whose spring was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. The lost season hit particularly hard for Eau Claire Memorial boys tennis and its seniors, who hoped to lead the program to a 14th consecutive trip to the team state tournament. They met at Owen Park in June, the week the team tournament was supposed to be played, for one final goodbye and a bit of closure.
“I did some individual tournaments but it’s always better to play for your team and play for your teammates,” Loen said. “Obviously a highly-anticipated senior season getting totally canceled, I’ve been bummed for that for a very long time. It’s just so nice to come here and feel welcomed and have great teammates and then succeed on the court as well.”
Loen said most of his classes thus far have been in-person, allowing him to at least get close to the normal college experience. When things do get stressful, he always has tennis to turn to, too.
“I’ve never loved playing tennis more than right now,” Loen said. “You get out there and you forget about COVID for two hours.”