By: Jason Grant
The serve was going to hit the line. I’d seen a million balls hit identically, and as it was crossing the net, I knew that it was going to graze the sideline and bounce away from me. I took one big step across my body to try to cut off the angle, and smacked a desperation forehand down the line. I was nearly at the fence, so I had no chance of getting back for the next shot. But my ball sailed over the high part of the net, and landed smack on the line. In college tennis, where cheating is rampant, even my opponent couldn’t call it out. Because we were the last match still playing, everyone on both teams, Muhlenberg and Lafayette, were lined up against the fence as we battled deep into the third set. My team cheered. The entire Lafayette team gasped. I took a 5-3 lead. One game away from victory, in my first ever collegiate match.
I had decided to come to Muhlenberg on May 1st, 2017, the last day to commit to college, aptly known to high school seniors as decision day. Bruce Levine, Muhlenberg’s recently hired head coach, had invited me and my parents for lunch at the college several times during my senior year, and he had experience working with the United States Tennis Association. Plus, only a handful of schools recruited me for tennis, and although Muhlenberg couldn’t give me an athletic scholarship, it felt nice to be wanted.
What made that match against Lafayette so thrilling was we were the underdogs, a Division III school competing against Division I. The three divisions were created by the NCAA in 1973 in an effort to classify schools based on athletics expectations, availability of scholarships, and potential revenue the school can generate. Like any athlete, Division III student athletes are driven to compete, but our main focus is to get a degree. Of 195,000 NCAA student athletes, Division III boasts the highest graduation rate at 87%. Division III athletes don’t appear on live television very often, nor do they generate the same excitement of March Madness or Division I college football. However, Division III has the most schools competing within it at 446, compared to Division I which has 351. It is also the lone division that cannot give out athletic scholarships, something that separates them from Division I and II, though 80% of student athletes in DIII still receive financial aid.
The score was 5-3. All I had to do was bear down and win four points. I lost the first point after a long rally. I started to panic and the next four games got away from me in a blur. After I shook my opponent’s hand, having lost 7-5 in the third, I slumped off the court, distraught. It didn’t matter that I had won my doubles match an hour prior, I lost my singles match in the most painful fashion. That’s one of the harsh truths about tennis; if you lose, it’s all on you. It’s not like basketball, when a teammate can miss the final basket, or baseball when your team can’t score runs. Those are team failures, a little easier to swallow. In tennis, if you blow it, you blow it. Nobody else. And it can end up costing the team a win.
Lafeyette would go on to win the team match, prompting their senior captain to tell their student newspaper, “We have never struggled against Muhlenberg before but it was good to sweep them in singles even when we weren’t playing our best tennis.” A grammatically incorrect sentence, but a clear message: Division III Muhlenberg is not worth our time.
I was inconsolable in the aftermath, but on the bus ride back to school Coach Levine provided encouragement, “Hey, don’t worry, you played well. It’s just one match.” I didn’t want to hear it, but I took some solace in knowing Coach Levine had three more years to help us improve. Little did I know, this would be one of the only matches he would coach for us.
In February of 2018, as we prepared for the season, Coach Levine walked into practice late with a concerned look on his face. “I recall Bruce [Levine] calling us all in to talk at the beginning of one practice during the spring to tell us that he had to take care of something,” said Gavin Meyers, one of my teammates who was also a freshman at the time. “He walked out, and we never heard from him again.”
It’s true. After he exited the gym that day, nobody on the team saw him again. The athletic department didn’t contact us for weeks after. The man who was primarily responsible for my commitment to Muhlenberg for the next four years, was suddenly gone. We soon realized that tennis, an inherently lonely game, was about to get much lonelier.
On top of that, we had no idea what Coach Levine had to “take care of.” As coach of both the men’s and women’s teams, we had heard he had potentially exhibited inappropriate behavior towards the women, but it was all speculation. There was an ongoing investigation, and we knew nothing. “I remember plenty of frustration from the team regarding the athletic department’s handling of the situation,” Meyers recalled. “I think the whole situation can be described as unfortunate.”
As March approached, the season was about to get underway, and we still did not have a coach. We had been scheduled to go to Florida for spring break to play four matches against schools from around the country, a tough ask for a team with a coach, but nearly an impossible task without one. Up until two nights before the flight, the team wasn’t sure if we were still going. But, the athletic department, in an effort to bolster one of its most treasured varsity teams, or not waste money on airline tickets already purchased, sent us to Florida with two strength trainers.
Arriving in Florida, I was sure tennis would not be a priority. The housing complex we stayed in had a swimming pool, a basketball hoop and a game room. Without a coach to keep us motivated, it seemed likely we would spend most of our free time sitting by the pool. But although we were a young team with five freshmen, we all recognized how important this trip was for the rest of our season. We never discussed it out loud, but there was a clear understanding: no fooling around, it’s game time.
“The spring break trip without a coach was tough at first,” explained Andrew Natko, a sophomore at the time and my doubles partner. “I think it took a little bit of time for the team to realize that we had to support each other without a coach leading us forward thus making us a mentally stronger team overall.”
At our first match in Florida, we were handily defeated by Aquinas University 2-7. But we were not discouraged. “Having a coach would have helped us improve our tennis game, but I don’t think the team dynamic would have been nearly as strong as it was after the trip,” said Natko.
In preparation for our second match, we practiced hard. There was no coach telling us to do drills or to work on volleys, and there didn’t need to be. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the Florida humidity was brutal. We practiced for over two hours as the sun scorched the blue and green cement. Nobody complained and nobody wanted to stop. At the end, when our trainers lined us up on the baseline for suicides, we almost welcomed it.
The next day, against Trine University, our hard work showed. In the doubles, Natko and I sealed victory in our match when Natko lunged, hitting a backhand volley on the full stretch that crawled over the net for a stunning winner. We jumped in the air and bumped shoulders. We were becoming more than a random assortment of tennis players. We were becoming a team.
In the singles, we battled just as hard. I lost the first set, but battled back to win the second. In the deciding match tiebreaker, I came from behind to win 10-8. We would win three other singles matches as my teammates Selly, Dags, and Mickey, all pulled out victories, and we went on to beat Trine 6-3. It would be the only match we would win in Florida, but it was impactful. We proved to ourselves that coach or not, we could still be competitive.
When we returned home, we expected the athletic department to update us on the current situation as we were scheduled to open up conference play. We got little feedback. We heard there was an investigation going on, but to what extent or how long it would take, we had no idea.
Adam Kronick, another freshman at the time, described the frustration well. “I think the athletic department definitely could’ve handled the situation much better as they never really told us what was happening. I think the confusion and lack of information during the whole process affected the team negatively.”
As for our interim coach, the athletic department announced that Angie, an assistant tennis coach who would occasionally help Coach Levine at practice, would be our only coach for the remainder of the season. We were grateful that Angie was willing to take on such a big responsibility so abruptly, but still, we felt slighted by the athletic department. We had only met her three or four times prior. The football and baseball teams have multiple coaches and trainers, while we were given one coach with little collegiate coaching experience for the rest of the year.
And soon the issues started to rise. Angie would shift the lineup sometimes in an effort to change things up, which upset upperclassmen used to starting at the same spot. During one match that was forced indoors due to rain, Angie agreed with the other team to forgo any third sets in favor of a match tiebreaker. In other words, if the players split the first two sets, the first one to 10 points wins. Upon returning from a bathroom break after splitting sets, I was informed of the changes and lost my match 10-7 minutes later. After our senior captain, Mickey, also lost his match in a tiebreaker, aggravation started to build. We weren’t mad at Angie, but at the inconsistencies of the entire season.
“I don’t think the team came together as a result of Angie being the coach,” Natko admitted. “She was put in a situation where she had little preparation through no fault of her own. She did everything she could to help the team.”
My freshman season, we finished 4-14. Expectations were low, but we didn’t care about that, and we weren’t satisfied. Over the summer of 2018, I needed shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum on my left side. Shortly after, we got an email from Muhlenberg saying they had hired a new coach, a former player and coach from Moravian College, one of our local rivals. I knew I would have to miss the entirety of the short fall season, and was uncertain about my place on the team going forward. It seemed we would have another rollercoaster of a season.
But Coach Toedter provided a much needed calm atmosphere at practices and matches. He addressed all the guys on the team as ‘brotha’ and always encouraged us during matches to simply go out and hit the ball without overthinking.
“Coach Toedter becoming the new head coach was like putting on an old glove,” said Natko. “He fit the Muhlenberg tennis dynamic so well, both teams loved him, and he knows his tennis. Whenever I speak with JT, I always feel like he has the team’s best interest in mind.”
Last year, my sophomore season, we finished 6-9, nothing to write home about, but a start. We had a chance to make the playoffs up until our last regular season match, but we would fall to Franklin & Marshall. But Coach Toedter’s debut season sent a message to us and the rest of the conference: watch out, we’re coming.
In March, as Natko slid towards the sideline to reach a slice backhand, he scuffed up his brand new white tennis shoes on the green cement. Normally, Natko was very uptight about his on court fashion, making sure of his shorts, ankle braces, and shoes were all in check. And with the first away match of his senior season just days away on the schedule, maybe he would have let that ball go, under normal circumstances. But on that day, he couldn’t care less. The school had announced the night before that all students had to evacuate campus by the end of the week due to Covid-19, and he wasn’t sure if this was the last time he’d share the court with his teammates.
Natko was smacking forehands with a disregard for where they were landing. In tennis, it’s much better to simply let your arm fly and hit the ball rather than try to pinpoint the exact spot to hit it. That’s where you get into trouble. But Natko’s shots were landing an inch from the line, and I could barely keep up. I thought about how far we’d come from when I arrived on campus in 2017, when our rallies would end in five shots or less. I thought about the match my freshman year at Lafayette, where I let nerves get the better of me. I thought about the three spring break trips we had taken over the years, with freshman year my favorite by far.
And most of all, I thought about the match this past fall against Lafayette, when we beat them 5-4 for the first time since 1948. Which was weird, ya know, because Lafayette never struggles against us. We had put in the work, endured a carousel of coaching changes, had starters quit the team, graduate or transfer, and yet we were still ready and eager to claim our place in the conference playoffs. But suddenly, the season was over before it really began.
“My first thought was that we were playing so well, and it was a shame we wouldn’t get to put our skills into play against the conference,” Natko lamented.
Meyers shared a similar sentiment. “The success we had last year and to begin this season shows that the team has gotten closer since my freshman year, and the transition to a new coach was well handled.”
As I prepare for my senior season, I don’t know what to expect. If the three previous seasons have taught me anything, it’s to be prepared for any and all circumstances. So regardless of the obstacles we may face, the pandemic has made me appreciate the chaos that tennis season brings. Now that quarantine has forced me to resort to hitting tennis balls against the house in my driveway, I miss competing with my team. It sure would make the sport a lot less lonely.