Archival TBT

The new season is coming up. On St. Olaf College’s composite athletic calendar, the only sports with their schedule up are the men and women’s tennis teams. They are prepared to play in a socially distanced world. 

It makes sense. Tennis matches have comparatively few athletes on the court, and opposing teams are never required to get close to one another. The game won’t be the same, but at least it can still be played.

While most sports hibernate, waiting for when it’s safe enough to play their games as usual, this Throwback Thursday can shine a light on a great moment of St. Olaf tennis history. One stands out: an alum who won the state singles championship two years in a row back in the 1930s.

Ralph Engstrom ’35 grew up in Northfield. He attended Northfield High School and graduated his junior year in order to attend St. Olaf College. His father, Adolph Engstrom, worked at St. Olaf as a professor of voice. Ralph Engstrom would go on to earn a degree in physics and work as an assistant at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Throughout high school and college, Engstrom played tennis. His first great success came in 1933 when he won the singles state championship. The match — played against a student from St. Thomas University — lasted an exhausting two and a half hours. The sets were 2-2 before Engstrom won the final decisive game. This was the first time in a number of years that a man from St. Olaf held the title of champion, which is why it was so impressive that Engstrom managed to do it again the next year.

In 1934, Engstrom beat out a student from Gustavus for the title of state champion after losing the first two sets. With a well of motivation that had run dry, Engstrom won the third set 6-1. He stole the fourth set, and then won the final set 7-5. With that, he was a double state champion. During his senior year at St. Olaf, he was captain of the team. His success was a shining moment for the College and its tennis program.

Since then St. Olaf’s tennis teams have had their ups and downs, but no moment stands out stronger than Ralph Engstrom. With the newest season about to start, it’s nice to remember a story of triumph.

While everyone waits for normalcy to return to athletics, St. Olaf is not remaining dormant. No one is. Athletes continue to train and practice while keeping safe. Once college sports return, people are bound to receive a lush season. With tennis continuing to play during the pandemic, they continue to get better. Whether they want it or not, attention is focused on the men and women’s tennis teams — across all colleges in the Midwest, not just St. Olaf. The spring tennis season is planned to start in the beginning of March.

Who knows? Maybe the next state champion is coming around the corner.


sivbo1@stolaf.edu