Monday, June 3, 2013

75 years of pressure

The famous coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning is a habit.” The Kalamazoo College Tennis team adopted the habit in 1936, Lombardi’s last year as a college student at Fordham University, and they haven’t kicked it since.

On April 3, the Calvin Knights did their best to help end a 74 year habit. The Knights defeated the Hornets 6-3 at home. And all of a sudden, It was in jeopardy.

“It was a quiet car ride back,” said junior Peter Rothstein. “We all knew what was at stake.”

The Hornet loss to Calvin was just the third time in 75 years the team had lost a dual-match in the MIAA and the first ever loss to Calvin. It left the guys scared.

“I was extremely concerned after Calvin. We had never lost to Calvin before. And I had never been a part of an MIAA loss,” said junior Skippy Faber.

Though coach Mark Riley made it a point in his post-match speech to his team that Hope could still beat Calvin and, if K beat Hope, create a three-way tie atop the standings. It could be preserved. Still, the team rode down US-131 in silence.

“It was the lowest I’ve ever seen the mood since my time here. Really bad,” said Faber. “People didn’t talk for days.”

Kalamazoo College men’s tennis is defined by excellence. The team has won seven national championships, with the most recent coming in 1993. They’ve made the NCAA tournament every year since it’s inception, 1976. Including winning the national championship that first year. None of those accomplishments silenced the Hornets on April 3 though. Instead, it was the looming pressure of It.

“There is pressure. We don’t want to be the team that loses it,” said Rothstein.

In the end, Coach Riley ended up being right. Hope defeated Calvin 6-3 on the last day of the MIAA regular season matches, the same day Kalamazoo completed their season with a 9-0 victory at Alma. It was preserved.

For 75 straight seasons, the K men’s tennis has been at the top of the MIAA. Over the last seven-plus decades, the Hornets have gone 461-3 in the MIAA. 72 of the seasons resulted in an outright title for Kalamazoo, though in three seasons, there has been a tie at the top. This year, Calvin and Hope both earned a share of the title and in 2003 and 1962, Hope shared the championship with K.

Dominance over that amount of time is unheard of. Mostly due to the difficulties of reloading a team and competing every single day, though also because most athletic leagues have not been around long enough for teams to even achieve this. Three of the six Division I power conferences were not founded until the streak was underway.

“The streak began when they were still using wooden rackets,” said Rothstein. “This was before World War 2.”

A record of such prestige does not come easy.

“A lot of people think we just go out there and walk all over people and that’s not the case,” said Faber. 

“On any given day if [the opponent] comes out and plays a good match and we’re not there mentally, then they can beat us. And that’s what happened against Calvin.”

“The fact that that’s only happened three times over the span of 75’s ridiculous.”

A common mention in the professional tennis world is the drought Great Britain is currently suffering through between Wimbledon men’s singles champions. The last British player to compete the feat was Fred Perry, capping a streak of three straight championships in 1936—the same year K’s streak began.

Yet the improbability and longevity of the streak have received little mention.

“Do people here know about it? I don’t even know who knows about it,” said Rothstein.

“It’s a little annoying. I mean, it’s just kind of a shame. It’s not just our team, it’s all those teams,” said Faber.

Recognition does not drive the streak though and the players admitted a lack of recognition is not really an issue to them.

“We don’t do it so everyone talks about it,” said Rothstein.

Within the college, the players were treated to some form of acknowledgement by peers and faculty.

“A lot of people came up to me in the days after we won and congratulated me. So that was nice. Some people actually recognized it,” said Faber.

Outside of the school though, news of the streak seems as silent as the teams dreadful bus ride. and DIII tennis guy, one of the few media members solely concerned with the world of NCAA Division III tennis, made no mention of the streak in postseason articles. It was like it didn’t exist. There was no praise for the legacy of K College tennis, though there was criticism:

“...Kalamazoo, who I just can’t stand anymore because their program has turned from competitive into a complete joke.”

Those remarks came in a preseason article in the fall and did not go without notice from the Hornet players. Members of the team read the comments and passed it along to teammates shortly after.

“We tried to kind of use it as motivation,” said Faber. “He had no idea about our team. He didn’t know that Beau and Max, our freshmen, were good. He just looks at the ranking stars. He reads the scores.”

“He’s just someone looking at the paper,” said Rothstein.

History does show a drop-off in National results for the Hornets though. Their seven national titles came between 1976 and 1993. Throughout the 90’s, they never finished lower than 3rd at NCAAs.
Though they have not achieved that type of success in the 2000s. The team has made it to the quarterfinals three times since 2000. For a team that never finished lower than fifth from 1976 to 1999 though, the quarterfinals is not enough. And the team has not even reached that level since 2005.
K’s current team sees the talent trending up though. They are confident in the future success of the program.

“Coach has become more aggressive in terms of recruiting,” said Faber.

Part of the evolution is recruiting talent, though the greater challenge may be developing the talent to compete at the national level.

“[Coach] treats us like a Division I program,” said Rothstein. “We always get some top ten teams, a couple top 20 teams in our schedules.”

Even with the talent and preparation though, sometimes what separates the great teams is the mental game.

“The difference between us and top teams is doing whatever it takes to stay out there and compete,” said Faber. “In terms of skill, we can compete with those teams. This year.”

The teams skill-level will look to gain a boost next year with at least five incoming freshmen. Three of the players come from within Michigan, though one is from Illinois and the other from Florida. The prestige of the program helps to recruit in-state talent.

“A lot of tennis players already know of it. Even the ones that don’t go here,” said Rothstein.
Recruiting out-of-state though, is a struggle for a school of K’s stature. However, with Coach Riley’s aggressive recruiting and continued success of the program, Faber sees no reason the Hornets can’t continue to recruit top talent.

“Our indoor facilities and our academics and how nice our campus is, People want to come,” said Faber. “Especially when they see our outdoor tennis courts.”

Stowe Stadium was dedicated in 1946 and despite renovations to maintain the court, such as a resurfacing and fence replacement last summer, the stadium has maintained a similar structure to its 1946 birth. It serves as the host of the USTA Boys’ 16 and 18 national tournaments every summer, attracting top talent like Arthur Ashe, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick during its years in Kalamazoo. This season, it was the host site of the men’s and women’s Division III national championships.

“They show [prospective students] Stowe Stadium on the tour,” said Rothstein. “And coaches take recruits into Markin [Racquet Center] and walk past the trophies.”

Since its dedication, Stowe has served as a landmark of Kalamazoo College. It leaves a lasting impression. The history that has taken place on the stadium’s courts could fill an encyclopedia.

“It’s our Big House,” said Faber.

Like Rothstein noted, many prospective athletes are taken into Markin by their coaches during visits. This gives potential athletes the opportunity to see the legacy of Kalamazoo tennis.

“The coach shows them the hall of fame and the memorabilia and our trophies. They tell them about the streak. Which I think is kind of funny,” said Faber.

That recognition is more than welcome; however, to a team robbed of the praise they probably deserve.

“It does make you feel good,” said Rothstein. “You just kind of feel like we’re the best team and they’re using that and our accomplishments to help attract other athletes.”


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  2. Daniel,

    So if I'm being honest, I was sort of unfazed when you pitched your story in class. I felt like I've heard so much about tennis at K. But I was so wrong. I was blown away by your story. I still have shivers from this quote: “The streak began when they were still using wooden rackets,” said Rothstein. “This was before World War 2.” [!!!!!!!!!!!] That's insane. I cannot believe how little the school acknowledges the team's achievements! But I also can because of my lame initial reaction.

    I think you did an extremely strong job grounding the reader in the immensity of the streak and the lack of recognition. I learned a lot from your piece. But I think bumping up the more narrative aspects (what do the players look like? can we see them playing in action?) would really enhance the piece. Thanks for teaching me about our tennis team!

  3. Danny,

    It’s clear you did a really great job reporting. The article was very informative and connected the history of the tennis program to its current state/situation. Skippy and Peter gave you really good quotes, and going off one of Peter’s - “Do people here know about it [the streak]? I don’t even know who knows about it.” -- I would be interested to see what students on campus actually know about the tennis team and their successful history. It might be worth following up on.

    I thought including the DIII tennis guy quote was a good move, and also a good discovery in terms of reporting. It kind of left me wanting to know more -- maybe one more comment that he made about the team. Also, I think it may be interesting to get a little bit of the coach’s perspective in all of this -- maybe about recruiting, but you could also get his reaction from the blog comments.

    I think you lede work as is, but it may be interesting to open in scene. I was thinking maybe starting with the car ride home from their Calvin loss -- maybe get some more details from Peter and Skippy or go back through your notes and try to re-create that car ride with all of the disappointment and fear that coincides with breaking the streak. Overall, you did an excellent job. Really good first draft!

  4. Danny,

    I know NOTHING about our sports teams here (or anywhere else for that matter) and I usually do not read sports articles. But this was fantastic! I really enjoyed learning about our tennis team and its immense legacy. I remember hearing snippets of how we needed Hope to win, and your article helped me to understand why that win was so crucial.

    I'm telling you, I'm not much of a sports person so it's pretty impressive that your article kept my attention. I think you presented the information in an informative and clear way-- a way that non sports fans could follow and not feel overwhelmed or confused. I also think you did a good job showing how unappreciated the tennis team is--poor guys. I hope they all eventually get to read your article because it shows how much pressure they have to be winners, but with little recognition from the student body.

    My main critique of this profile is that I feel like the story-telling aspect is missing from it. I think if you included comments on what the pressure feels like for the students and the coaches, or if there's any resentment from the tennis players toward their dismissive classmates, or how hollow that bus ride back from Calvin was, it could draw the readers in even more.

    Great work and I'm excited to see what you do with it!

  5. I thought that did a great job of really cementing how important this streak is. The way that you captured quotations from the players and gave historical context (like the Fred Perry reference) help the reader to realize what an accomplishment this really is. I also really appreciated the way that you moved on from talking about just the streak, to talking about recent NCAA struggles, especially for a program that has been historically excellent in national competition.

    With all that being said, I thought that you could do a few things to strengthen the piece. Getting quotations from Mark Riley would be incredibly helpful, as he was a former player here when they had national success, and as current coach. I'm not sure how you could do this, but getting quotations from former players would also help to give the reader a little context into what the mentality was like back in those days for the tennis program. Finally, finding out what lead to the program slipping from national relevance would help to explain how the program may try to do the things that you mentioned in order to become relevant (nationally) once again. Overall, I think that this is a really interesting piece and that you have a really solid framework to go from. I'm glad that someone finally did a sports piece as I'm super interested in this kind of thing. Nice job dude!

  6. It's a very comprehensive and well-researched profile. I was especially impressed with your use of historical facts in addition to outside media. It's refreshing to see a purely sports-based profile, not only because it hasn't really been done in the class, but because you manage to intertwine the technical and psychological struggles of the team. I agree with Brian in that you should attempt to get some quotes from Mark Riley, and maybe some from a broader sample of the team, but this is a great framework.

  7. Nicely done, man! I thought that your wide range of sources brought a well-rounded perspective to the winning streak, and what happened this year provided that extra drama in the story. Like others have said, it was nice to read about our K sports because they're not usually the focus on our campus all of the time. The history and legacy lesson that you provide here is something that I think every K student should know.