Rhinelander High School seniors, from left, Erica Counter, Tyler Blomdahl and Alexx Knapp, sign papers indicating their intent to play NCAA Division-III college sports this fall during a press conference Wednesday, April 12 in the One Prospect Digital Media Center at RHS. Counter will play women’s tennis at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Blomdahl will play college football at UW-Stout in Menomonie and Knapp will play women’s volleyball at Northland College in Ashland. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
4/18/2017 7:32:00 AM Three RHS seniors declare collegiate intentions
Three Rhinelander High School seniors declared their intentions to play collegiate sports last Wednesday in a joint press conference at the high school's digital media center.
Tyler Blomdahl will play college football at UW-Stout in Menomonie, Erica Counter is heading to Marian University in Fond du Lac to play women's tennis and Alexx Knapp will attend Northland College in Ashland to play women's volleyball.
"It's always an opportunity not every child gets and every kid tries to find a school that fits them, not only academically but for sports," RHS activities director Brian Paulson said during the press conference.
Blomdahl was an All-Great Northern Conference selection on both sides of the ball last fall, earning unanimous first-team honors as a defensive end and honorable mention as an offensive lineman. He projects to be an outside linebacker in UW-Stout's 3-4 defensive scheme.
"We're proud of Tyler," RHS football coach Chris Ferge said. "He's grown a lot in the last year and he's going to have an opportunity to play football at the very high level. Great sport, a lot of dedication. I'm excited about him going to school and finding his path as well. We know he'll do very well."
Aside from playing football, Blomdahl is a power-hitting catcher for the RHS baseball team and was a defenseman turned forward for the RHS boys' hockey team. But Blomdahl said college football was always his No. 1 goal, a dream that was reaffirmed following the conclusion of his senior football season.
"It just sort of clicked to me," he said. "The tight-knit brotherhood on a football team, you can't find it anywhere else. It's just something I really liked. That was a big thing for me was to say I want to play football. I just felt like I wasn't done yet after this year. (I felt) I can do it, so why do I have to be done right now. That just made the decision after that."
Blomdahl said other Division III schools contacted him, including Lakeland University in Mequon, Finlandia University in Hancock, Mich. and UW-Stevens Point, but that the combination of athletics and academics is what eventually led him to Stout.
"I kind of just fell in love right away with the college," he said. "It was not only top-notch athletic facilties, but top-notch academic facilities, which is a really huge (draw). Not only did the have the facilities, they had the personnel. A lot of the coaches were super friendly, super personable and knew what they were talking about ... They're well experienced so that was a big draw for me."
A self-described hands-on learner, Blomdahl said Stout's poly-technic curriculum attracted him to the Menomonie campus. He said he will enter college as an undeclared major, but said mechanical engineering could be a possible path.
Blomdahl, a Wisconsin Football Coaches Association all-region team honoree in 2016, recorded 55 tackles for the Hodags - tops among defensive linemen and third-best on the team overall - and recorded nine tackles for loss.
"I just thank my parents for everything they've done," he said. "Three sports, I know it's a lot of time, a lot of money invested in me as an individual. A big thanks goes out to them and, obviously, a big thanks to coach Ferge for being my head coach and (defensive line) coach (Zach) Ready and (offensive line) coach (Aaron) Kraemer. I spent a lot of time with them and they definitely developed me as the player that I am. They're a big part of the reason I'm able to do this.
UW-Stout is part of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which boasts perennial D-III football powers UW-Whitewater and UW-Oshkosh. The Blue Devils went 3-7 overall and 1-6 in the WIAC last fall.
Counter and doubles teammate Ali Schickert finished second in the top flight of doubles in the Great Northern Conference last season after winning the conference title at No. 3 doubles in 2015. She is set to join a current Marian roster that has nine players, only one of which is a senior.
"Erica did not mention the time and the effort she's put in to become the player that she is," Rhinelander coach Bob Heideman said at the signing event. "I think that those habits and the skills that she has will serve her well at the next level. I'm anxious to see how she does because we don't get a lot of tennis players who go on and play in college."
Heideman said former Rhinelander No. 1 singles player Eileen Emond was the last to play collegiate tennis. Prior to that, Allie Fortier was the Hodags' last collegiate netter, playing for UW-Stevens Point from 2009-2013.
Counter said college tennis was not always a goal - both of her older sisters played softball collegiately - but that she's grown to love tennis over the last few years.
"I had so much fun in tennis and did not want the season to end no matter what," she said. "I always wanted to continue to play. With softball, I love it and I would take a day to go play it again after I'm done senior year, but tennis I had a lot more fun in practices and I think that had a lot to do with how Heideman kind of (ran his program), too."
Counter said Marian coach Marcus Wiegert reached out to her through Heideman and she was convinced to attend the D-III school following an on-campus visit.
"Everybody there was very nice and very supportive," she said. "It seemed like a great school, in general. Marcus seems like a very fun coach, seems kind of like Heideman in a way, and I actually got to talk to some of the girls and they said that practices were pretty cool most of the time. They got stuff done but they were also fun, which is probably the main thing. If you're having fun, you're going to be successful."
Counter said she intends to pursue either a nursing or dentistry degree at Marian and enjoys the campus' relatively close proximity to major metropolitan areas. She'll join a Sabre team that's currently 10-7 overall and 6-3 in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference.
"I would just like to, first off, thank my parents for all their support," she said. "Also my coach (Heideman) and how he's allowed me to grow from first coming in seventh-grade, eighth-grade year for summer camp, me not really knowing anything (about tennis). He's made me the player that I am and that means a lot to me."
Knapp's journey to the college-level athletics is the most unique of the three at Wednesday's event as she was not on the RHS volleyball last year, devoting her attention to the Rhinelander High School dance team. She even admitted Wednesday that her initial goal was to be a part of a college dance team.
So how did she land at Northland?
"Dad (Bruce Knapp) had me going after it around sophomore year because my brother (Codie) played college football for a little bit (at Concordia-St. Paul). He was like, 'Oh, he liked it, so maybe you'll like it,'" she explained. "I wasn't even sure I wanted to play volleyball to begin with, so we were just going on a bunch of different visits and one day my dad was like, 'Hey, let's go up to Ashland this weekend and visit Ashland.'
"We met with the volleyball coach just in case I decided I wanted to play. They brought me to their practice and I stayed overnight with the volleyball girls and the next day I was like, 'This is where I'm going.' It just clicked. And the small community really was good because I think that having a lot of tutors and help is a good things."
Knapp added: "Northland was probably the first one where it was like, 'Yeah, I could fit in on this volleyball team.' That's when I was like volleyball's a good thing."
Knapp thanked her parents, her coaches and Paulson for being flexible as she juggled dance and volleyball throughout her high school career and said she was attracted to Northland - a small, private college with an enrollment of roughly 600 students - in part because of its low student-to-teacher ratio.
The Lumberjills went 3-25 and 1-7 in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference last year. The volleyball roster featured only nine players, eight of whom were underclassmen. Knapp said she will likely be a defensive specialist and will study psychology at Northland.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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