First Ever

First ever

To my teammates: past, present, and future.

And Coach Adam Herendeen

“Comfort bears no fruit.”- Coach Chuck Kriese

Not a word was spoken.  Thunder rumbled.  Heavy rain landed hard and loud against the PC men’s tennis team’s bus at the parking lot of Winthrop’s tennis facility in Rock Hill, SC.  We hurriedly crammed into the bus as the drenching rain came quickly giving us little time to salvage our tennis bags from the downpour.  Readjusting bodies, sniffles and loud sighs echoed as we waited with slight anxiety for our coach to relieve us with some news.

“Ok guys, radar doesn’t look promising, but they’re gonna wait an hour before they make a final decision,” our coach announced with a skeptical tone and with still lingering nerves from what had recently transpired.

I stared out my window in the bus with fake calmness. How could I be calm? How could any of us be calm after all that we had worked for in the last seven months was hanging in the balance?  We were so close, yet we were just as far.  My display of calm and collectedness seemed to take effect on my teammate and close friend Rafael, who was sitting beside me just as he did in all our road trips that season.  I am not one to be superstitious, but with the success that I had had my freshman year, I wanted to keep everything consistent.  It helped that Rafa did not mind my presence next to him, even though I was the only traveling freshman and everyone else got a seat to themselves.  I stole a glance from him while we were making our way back to the hotel that was located just a few miles away from Winthrop University.  He, much like everyone else, was silent and seemed to be in deep thought as if he were replaying the points from his still on-going match at the 3 singles position.  His match was the ultimate decider. Nobody dared to mention it, but we all knew the outcome of the match depended on his court.  Rafa’s roommate William was the only other match still in progress when the rain halted play.  Will had been a strong part of our team and a consistent winning point at the 2 singles position.  He led 1-0 in the third and deciding set against an opponent he had already beaten during the regular season.  He would be the one that would level the score of the semifinal match at 3-3, leaving Rafa the ultimate honor. At least that’s how I played it in my head in that moment.

It was barely twenty minutes after the original delay that the Big South tournament officials along with Winthrop’s Athletic Director made the final decision to suspend play for the rest of the evening.  Play was to resume at 9:00 AM sharp.  Three seed Presbyterian College against two seed Campbell University. Semifinal action for a spot to play the heavy favorite Coastal Carolina team in the finals of 2013 Big South Conference tournament; the scene was set.

As we parked the team’s bus in the hotel parking lot, our coach turned off the ignition, blew out a large sigh, and stood from the driver’s seat to face the team.  As a recently married, 25-year-old PC alumnus, Coach Adam was as “on top of it” as anyone I had ever known.  Everything in his life seemed to have been planned. Everything. Even his marriage, I think.  He planned to graduate and teach tennis. He planned to take over as head coach just a couple years later.  He planned to start dating in search for a wife and soon after he planned to get married.  He planned how he would recruit top players, and then did it.  He planned out his summers for coaching and tennis camps.  He planned out our entire season, first the fall semester and then spring semester. He planned out his vacations.  He planned by weeks and months.  And now it was clear that he could also plan on the fly.

Just in the minutes the drive lasted, he planned the way our following day would look.  That day, however, would be the day: Championship Sunday!  Except for we were not yet in the championship due to the delayed semifinal match.

“Tomorrow is gonna be a little different guys so hear me out.  I want Will and Rafa to choose a partner to warm them up in the morning.  Those four guys will be the only ones warming up in the morning before the match, but I want everyone to be ready to go because honestly I feel like there is a high possibility that we will be playing for the Big South Championship in the afternoon,” Coach said with an impressively believable tone this time.  “Guys, it’s important that we keep the mild tone for the two guys who are still battling so they can be ready to compete their tails off in the morning.  Let’s unpack the bus and hangout for a bit before dinner. Rafa and Will, you guys let me know who you want to warm up with.”

Rafa immediately turned to me and asked me if I was cool with it. “I’d love to,” I replied concisely and confidently.  He turned away from me with a slight nod that meant “good.”

The next morning I awoke as if I were playing the match that day.  I promised myself that I would give Rafa the best warm up he could get.  I was up, alert, and ready for the challenge before even jumping in the shower.  The cold water streaming out of the showerhead hit me like frigid bullets, but my blood was boiling.  Inside my head were visualizations not of how the day would end up, but rather how the things under my control were going to happen.  “I need to be perfect this morning,” I told myself aloud, “Rafa needs me to be perfect this morning.”  Like Will, his match had been suspended in the third and final set.  Rafa, however, was losing 3 games to 1 and deuce on his serve.  This was a crucial point in this match.  Going 4-1 down with two breaks is a big difference from 3-2 if you know anything about competitive tennis.  As tricky and fragile as this situation was, I did not want to say too much to Rafa and possibly irritate him.  I had to come up with something short, intelligent, and inspiring to pump him up and to help take some of the pressure off his heavy shoulders.

I stared out my usual window seat on our way back to the tennis complex while Rafa’s left shoulder bumped into my right one in a sort of familiar way.  My mind was racing. The butterflies in my stomach made me uneasy.  I could not even imagine what was going through Rafa’s head.  “Ready?” I asked him in an attempt to steer him away from his thoughts. “Ready,” he replied with conviction.  Rafa’s usual nonchalant self was very intact that day and that gave me confidence, though I did not sense that from my other teammates.  Everyone’s body language from the time play was suspended just 18 hours before to the moment we entered Winthrop’s parking lot that morning was visibly poor. Unfortunately, Rafa’s not-so-stellar season helped justify their behavior. He had been flirting with a .500 record throughout the season, a percentage that was significantly lower than that of his previous two years. It was obvious that some of the guys were trying to bluff their body language, at least around Rafa, but several of them had discussed their fading optimism and growing skepticism with me back at the hotel.  I knew Rafa was going to pull through. He had to. This is the way it was supposed to be. We worked too hard for it and I wasn’t going to accept otherwise.  But did I actually know?  I mean the odds certainly were against us.  All these thoughts kept circling in my head as I walked from the parking lot to the tennis courts alongside my teammates.  Our coach gathered Rafa, me, Will and Gonzalo before we stepped on the court.  “You guys have 40 minutes to warm up and get whatever you need.”  We all nodded and went to our respective courts.

It was almost a year to the day that the PC men’s tennis team had made history for the first time.  They were the first PC team in the Division 1 era to finish runner up in the conference tournament.   The road to the finals was far from a walk in the park, possibly the exact opposite even.  Our coach likes to call it the “Spartan path.”  As the smallest Division 1 school in the nation, we tend to have to overcome more hardships than anyone else.  And in the process, we received rather little respect.  In culmination of these things, the team adapted a new motto: FE.  It does in fact stand for “First Ever” in terms of the run at history; a desire to reach heights never seen at Presbyterian.  I made sure I was wearing one of the new practice shirts with our “FE” logo on the sleeve that morning.

The warm up was perfect.  I pretended to be Rafa’s opponent as best as I could, for I knew how he played since I had matched up against him earlier in the season.  I hit shots that Rafa would potentially see in the course of his remaining match.  Time after time, rally after rally, whatever Rafa needed, I would do. I was his puppet for forty minutes, and I enjoyed every second of it.  After 35 minutes, Rafa gave me a thumbs-up signaling that he was ready.  He sat down on the bench to grab something to drink and I went and sat next to him as he began to re-grip his racquet. I let spill everything I planned to tell him, being careful not to irritate him.

“You good?” I asked, already knowing his response. “Look man, don’t over think things out there, just go out and play as hard as you can. That’s all we can ask of you.  Don’t get discouraged by whatever happens on the first point.  You can’t win or lose the match off it.  Battle your way back, I believe in you man! GO GET ‘EM!” I told him with as much confidence as I had in me, and we slapped a quality high-five.

“THREE MINUTES,” the referee yelled as we circled around Coach Adam.  It’s game time.  “Come close,” he said as he usually does before matches. “Guys, I know that we are capable of doing this. I really believe that we will be playing again later this afternoon, so I want everybody to have a match-ready tone. We have overcome adversity all year long and this is no different. Play hard and play for each other! Let’s get after it!” he said with increasing excitement.  “Everyone bring it in…one-two-three, BLUE!!” we all yelled in complete unison.

As we scattered from the huddle in all direction, I envisioned what was to come.  I turned my head and saw Rafa walking in the opposite direction at which point he turned his head in my direction, as if he sensed me staring at him. He gave a slight nod, similar to the one from the bus the previous afternoon, a motion that instantly verified the image in my head.  He was ready.

Rafael came back from down 4-1 with two breaks of serve and won the match sending Presbyterian into the 2013 final.

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