Imperfectly Perfect – Part 4: Unexpected Champions

We entered our eighth match facing a school that had a lot of good athletes as well as 4 really strong players.  If we were playing them 1-14, I would have felt good, but we were playing our top 7 versus their top 7.  This was going to be a coin flip of a dual match.  Their second singles player won a hard-fought match versus Tyler.  We were down 0-1.  Michael and Jimmy won second doubles shortly after this match finished.  1-1.  Jordan who had to wait for a court to open up made quick work of his 3rd singles opponent.  We led 2-1 and were competitive in both 1st singles and 1st doubles.  All we had to do was split, and we would be 8-0.  Things seemed to be going pretty well in 1st doubles as we were leading in the 3rd set, but 1st singles was a marathon match between two really evenly matches players.

By Hook or By Crook

Hooking in tennis is always something that has frustrated me.  Players calling their own lines leads to obvious temptations, but I also think people should recognize that a contest is only valid or fun when it is fair.  The courts we were playing on featured two courts on a lower terrace and two on an upper terrace.  I had walked up to the upper terrace to watch Kevin who was in a dogfight at #1 singles.  Splitting time between two matches was not easy, but in this set-up, I could only see what was happening on two courts at a time.

I can’t know exactly what happened in first doubles, but something bad happened.  What I was told was that leading 5-4 in the 3rd set one of our players hit a winning volley on match point that landed several feet inside of the baseline.  It was called out.  Arguing ensued.  The point stood, and the game went to deuce.  Our players were beaten 7-5 in the third set and more acrimony was exchanged at the handshake with one of the opponents apologizing for his partner’s bad call.  Unfortunately, the head coach for the other school was also on the higher terrace coaching his 1st singles player.  We both agreed something bad had happened, but with neither of us having seen the events, the match stood.

Our schools were tied 2-2.  Kevin and his opponent split sets.  One set would decide if our record was 8-0 or 7-1.  I would not have minded losing.  This was a good team and their top 4 could get 3 points off of us, but I was livid at the time thinking that we had won the 1st doubles match and should be up 3-1 winning the dual match with first singles only having seeding implications for the regional tournament.  Kevin’s opponent appeared to be having conditioning issues early in the 3rd set, but it was getting darker.  Kevin and his opponent traded some long multi-deuce service games, and the set had to be called due to darkness.  We played the #1 school in our conference and a perennial power the next day.  Kevin would have to finish the 3rd set before he as an individual and we as a team faced steep odds in our 9th dual match.

8th and 9th Dual Matches Decided

Kevin was in better shape and more consistent than his opponent, but his opponent had a bigger serve.  Finishing one set with a full night’s rest led me to think that the bigger hitter had an advantage.  Kevin stepped up and won 4 of the 5 games they played that day to win the 3rd set 6-3.  We were 8-0!

That was great, but now we faced one of the top two tennis programs in Northern Kentucky.  Our portion of Kentucky had 18 schools that played boys’ tennis at the high school level.  We were divided into two 9 team conferences.  We were 8-0 and 6-0 in conference play.  Our opponent was also undefeated in conference play.  They swept us last year 5-0.  I never expected to beat them, but now we were sitting there at 8-0 with a shot at winning our conference.

Had their coach played his top 7 players we would have likely lost 4-1 or 5-0.  He walked up to me and said, “I’m giving you an opportunity.”  He put his top singles player at #1 singles and his top doubles team at #1 doubles.  He pulled his 8th-11th players to play #2 singles, #3 singles, and #2 doubles.  I was not sure whether to thank him or not as I thought his line-up was his business.  It was also not uncommon for coaches at the top two teams to play a lot of their JV players versus other teams in the region.

I think he fully expected to win with his modified line-up.  His agitation as the dual match progressed confirmed my intuition.  I didn’t blame him for being agitated as I preferred winning dual matches to losing them as well.  Their 1st singles and 1st doubles teams won in a hurry.  We were down 0-2.  This did not shock me as those players all had regional or better USTA rankings.  Jimmy and Michael won second doubles quickly.  1-2 down.  Things started to get interesting as Jordan was destroying his opponent.  Toward the end of the match, Jordan’s opponent tried to start a fight.  I guess trailing 0-6, 1-5 got under his skin.  His coach defaulted him.  We were tied 2-2 with Tyler’s match to decide the conference title.  Tyler cruised to an easy win, and in 24 hours we went from 7-0 and the bitter taste of a what-if doubles situation to 9-0 and conference champions.  Their coach shook my hand and said, “I opened the door, and your guys walked right through it.”

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This to my knowledge is the only boys’ tennis championship in SHDHS history

10-0 Plus Regionals

We won our final dual match 4-1 to finish the season 10-0 (8-0 in conference play).  Two of those wins came from our second 7.  We had a rainout versus the other perennial power in Northern Kentucky.  I was not overly upset by the rainout.  10-0 had a nice ring to it.

High School tennis in Kentucky has a postseason that features only 1st and 2nd singles and 1st and 2nd doubles.  Jordan was unable to participate despite being undefeated at 3rd singles.  Alex had played well in the JV regionals, but Jordan had a scheduling conflict.  The regional tournament scored each singles or doubles match win as a point for one’s school.  Our opponents that had one or two players with USTA rankings plus the core of the two perennial powers gobbled up all of the seeds.  I wasn’t thrilled with none of our players being seeded, but this tournament did not reward the sort of interchangeable depth we boasted.  We had one of three programs in Northern Kentucky with 14 or more solid tennis players.  We did not have, as of yet, any players who were dedicated to tennis year-round.

I felt bad for Ryan and Steve as they drew the #1 seeds in the first round of the doubles draw.  They played well but lost in straight sets.  Tyler, Kevin, as well as my team of Michael and Jimmy, won some matches in their draws.  Kevin was eliminated by a top 8 seed in a tough 2-set battle.  Jimmy and Michael lost the first set easily but pushed a top 8 seed in doubles hard in the second set.  Those matches took place simultaneously right next to each other.  Our season with no school losses was starting to end as we ran into elite talent from our region.  I wished we had a team vs. team format.  We would not have won the regional, but we would have reached the semifinal round in that format.

In the early evening, Tyler stepped on court versus yet another top 8 seed.  This player had mauled Kevin in the regular season.  I felt down about our magical season facing its close.  Tyler’s opponent grabbed an early lead.  I walked a few courts away from the match fearing that my feeling down might be picked up by Tyler.  Tyler kept scrapping.  He hit big serves and quality forehands.  He hit some drop shots.  Suddenly, the match was close.  After a tight first set, Tyler was pushing his opponent.  Tyler was swinging freely while his opponent was feeling the pressure of expectations.  I walked back down to talk to Tyler during a changeover.  He said, “Coach, I am doing well out here.”

I felt embarrassed for having taken a step away from the court.  I did not want to hurt his chances due to a down mood, but why the hell was I feeling down?!  We had been amazing all year and making good people beat us was something to embrace.  I stayed close to the match for its remainder.  I offered what advice I could at changeovers, but what made me most proud was that Tyler and the other guys knew tennis well enough that there was less and less utility in my midmatch tips.  Tyler pushed the second set to a tiebreak.  His opponent looked positively freaked out.  It was a hard-fought tiebreak, but our season ended.  The tournament director called Tyler a “giant killer” as he walked off of the court.

Giant Killers, Road Warriors, Walking through Doors … 

I am not sure of the best way to describe our two-year run.  We just kept winning despite having no home matches and having no players with a USTA ranking.  We just had a set of good athletes who practiced hard and competed well.  10-0, winning the conference, and forcing seeded players to eliminate our varsity players at the regional tournament were all part of their unexpected legacy.

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Bonnie D'Agnillo says:

    Wow, I absolutely LOVED reading this! Thank you for sharing your thoughts about an incredible season with some kids who just wanted to play tennis. This just made my heart happy. ❤

  2. Rob says:

    Great article Dan. I think I was too focused on NDA to realize your accomplishment. I’m glad you’re involved at St. X. Stay in touch.

    1. Dan Martin says:

      I may write something up about NDA soon. I had a lot more time in 2003 and 2004. Marriage and kids probably make me a less effective coach, but an overall more well-rounded person.

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