Monday, June 10, 2013

It Remains.

The famous coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning is a habit.” The Kalamazoo College men’s tennis team adopted the habit in 1936 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. 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 Hornets’ 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 was horrible. It was the worst day of the year,” said junior Michael Korn.

The team boarded the bus at Calvin scared, uncertain of what the next weeks would hold for them. Every player tried to handle it differently. Some immediately put headphones in, attempting to drown out their thoughts with music. Some tried to joke, lighten the mood, not think about. And others did nothing. Staring forward, silent.

“Even the people that were talking, you knew what was going through their head, ‘what just happened?’” said Korn.

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

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 in my time here. Really bad,” said Faber. “People didn’t talk for days.”

“I take things like that very hard,” said Korn. “It was a really bad three weeks, not just one day.”

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 its inception in 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.

“It’s motivating and makes you work really hard. It’s something I think about every day,” said Korn.

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.

“The first thing I thought of was 74 years of doing something in a row and the team I’m on is the team that ends 74 years in a row. That number is just unheard of,” said Korn. “The streak is definitely what was going through my head after we lost.”

For 75 straight seasons, the K men’s tennis team has been at the top of the MIAA. Over the last seven-plus decades, the Hornets have gone 461-3 in the MIAA. Seventy-two 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.”

Seventy-five years of excellence can begin to make some think that wins are inevitable, pre-determined. But 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,” said Faber.

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 complete 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.

However, recognition does not drive the streak and the players admitted a lack of acknowledgment is not really an issue to them.

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

“There’s a lot to play for when you’re playing here. It’s something bigger than yourself,” said sophomore Matthew Colapinto.

“It doesn’t bother me. It’s something I want for myself and to continue building the legacy for the other people that have been a part of it and the future people that are going to be a part of it,” said Korn.

At K, the players have been treated to some form of acknowledgement, though small, by peers and faculty.

“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 team’s 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 Bo 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.

“You can’t assess a team online. You can’t just look at a number and say this is a bad season, this is a bad team. All these horrible things. Unless you’re actually there and in the midst of it,” said Korn.

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 third at NCAAs.
However, they have not achieved that type of success in the 2000’s. 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 Hornets have not even reached that level since 2005.
K’s current team sees the talent trending up and 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.”

“For a team at our status, we play the hardest schedule we can,” said Korn.

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.”

“It’s about if everyone is willing to sacrifice and say this is what I want to do. It’s easy to say I want to make the final eight or the final four, but it’s really about, what your priorities?” said Colapinto.

“I think that a lot of it is work ethic and expectation,” said Korn. “Once you get inside the ranked teams in Division III tennis, there’s so little separating number 30 from number 5.”

The team’s skill level will look to gain a boost next year with at least five incoming freshmen. Three of the players come from 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.

“This is a pretty obvious school to consider if you’re from Michigan,” said Korn. “A lot of kids do know, whether or not they played here, they know that we have this really nice facility, and there’s all of these trophies.”

Recruiting out-of-state though, can be 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,” said Faber.

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

“It’s cool that tennis is talked about and brought up and it’s one of those things to kind of show the school off,” said Colapinto.

“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.”

The accomplishments are far from over though. Days after being eliminated from their NCAA regional, the men were back on the iconic courts working. They don’t need the recognition, the talking or the press. The trophies in Markin, the legacy of the program and the National Championship banners are looming. No matter the time of the year, the players can be found in pairs at Stowe or Markin with the recognizable echo of a fuzzy, neon ball. History awaits them.

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