Top players’ unique bond buoys 2011 Hough boys tennis team
by Chris Hunt
These days, most first-year high schools in Mecklenburg County struggle early in athletics because of inexperience. Their programs generally take the field without a senior class, and it takes time for a group of young transfers from different schools to mesh in their first season under a new coach.
But Hough High School has dealt with growing pains better than most. The Huskies’ boys soccer team advanced to the regional finals last fall. The Volleyball and girls basketball squads also impressed, qualifying for the state playoffs and pulling off a postseason victory or two. This spring, even the Huskies’ girls soccer team is in the hunt for an I-MECK 4A conference title.
You can also add the Hough boys tennis team to that list.
Last week, the surprising Huskies finished third in their first season of I-MECK play and qualified several athletes for the conference singles and doubles tournament at Mooresville this week. Their only two losses this season were to conference champion Hopewell and a narrow 5-4 defeat to I-MECK runner-up Lake Norman.
Two players expected to challenge for the league singles tournament crown are the Huskies’ top two seeds, Ryan Wydra and Collin Black, who have led Hough to a 7-2 mark (5-2 in the I-MECK). Wydra and Black have been brilliant during their first season in silver and black, winning every I-MECK singles match they played at the Nos. 1 and 2 spots, respectively.
But after a deeper look, maybe the story isn’t how well the Huskies have played in their first season, nor is it how dominant Hough’s top two players are. Maybe the story is just how well the top players – two of the most competitive high school tennis players you’ll ever meet – get along on and off the court.
It would be understandable if Wydra and Black didn’t get along. Both entered the season eying the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Wydra, only a freshman, won the prize after defeating Black in head-to-head matches early in the preseason. Black, a junior, was accustomed to the top seed after transferring from North Meck, where he earned all-conference honors as the Vikings’ No. 1 player last spring. He could have easily resented Wydra, who took over the top spot without ever playing a league match.
Yet there Wydra and Black were on Hough’s tennis courts, lobbing soft compliments at each other as if they’ve been practice partners for more than a decade. There’s a mutual respect and admiration between the two, even though they battled each other tooth and nail during three sets of preseason challenges to determine Hough’s No. 1 seed. It appears there aren’t any bitter feelings between the two.
“Collin’s such a great player that I knew I had to step it up,” said Wydra, who narrowly won all three sets against Black. “Those challenge matches were very close – it was always two games apart. It’s always close with Collin.”
First-year Hough coach Alice Hansen has been impressed with Wydra’s humble attitude, even though he plays higher level U.S. Tennis Association tournaments three to four times a month. In a typical week, Wydra will practice and play two matches with the Huskies during the week, then leave town for a weekend of tennis in state and regional competitions. Wydra recently won three consecutive USTA Level Four tournaments over three weekends.
On the court, Wydra is a self-described counter puncher with a wicked serve who’s thinking three steps ahead of his opponent. His baseline blasts to the back corners of the court are designed to keep adversaries chasing the ball until he finds the right moment to end the point.
But as good as Wydra is, and more important, could be in the future, it just might be his favorite saying that describes his gentle personality. It also reveals why he’s been able to get along with older teammates without generating resentment. Losing the top seed to a freshman is easier to swallow when he’s a polite, yes-sir, no-ma’am kind of guy.
“He’s always saying, ‘It’s all good,’” said Hansen. “It’s probably his philosophy in life. He’s like an old soul with a young heart. He always makes the responsible choices, but he always sees the world through positive, child-like eyes.”
Hansen added that Black is quite the chess player on the tennis courts himself. Blessed with athletic ability, he was the starting goalie on Hough’s boys soccer team, although he only recently took up the sport at the competitive level. Black also plays in USTA tournaments, never taking the court without his trademark sunglasses to protect “sensitive eyes to sunlight,” a tradition that goes back to his freshman season at North Meck.
But Black’s ability to accept the No. 2 spot without jealously is just as admirable as his stellar play. He’s actually been more than accepting of his new role, becoming the unquestioned team leader despite missing out on his preseason goals. Hansen said Black has kept the same selfless approach since she named Wydra the No. 1
seed before the team’s first match.
“I thought coming into the season that I was going to be the No. 1 tennis player, but things didn’t go as planned,” said Black. “In team tennis, it’s not about one person – it’s about the team. Sometimes, the leader isn’t always the best player, and I still wanted to lead this team.”
Making tough calls
Hansen’s toughest decision as coach this season might have been her first. Before the Huskies’ opening match, she decided to write a freshman’s name in as the No. 1 seed, above players with high school tennis experience. Hansen was worried her decision might divide the squad she’d only met weeks ago. She didn’t know how Black would take the news. But in the end, Wydra earned the position by winning the challenge matches.
Upon hearing the news, Black never blinked.
Even if Black couldn’t be the No. 1 seed, he was going to lead the charge of the underdog Huskies. He accepted the No. 2 role, and although he could’ve challenged the freshman again in practice for his position, he never again asked for another chance. Instead, he focused on helping the lower seeds become better players.
“(Collin) could have challenged Ryan again, but I think he was worried that it would create animosity on the team,” said Hansen. “It could have gone back and forth (between Black and Wydra) all season, but Collin understood that the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 is just a location. Never once did I see him upset where he was on the court.”
Then, before the Hopewell match on March 22, Hansen made another tough decision.
Prior to the season, Hansen’s first instinct was to not select a team captain. After all, she barely knew the players. She couldn’t leave the decision up to her players, either, because they barely knew each other after transferring from other schools, or in Wydra’s case, coming from middle school. But after watching Black this spring, she changed her mind and named him the first captain in team history.
“I knew Collin was the right choice,” said Hansen. “He never asked for (the captaincy), but he did what was right for the team.”
This week, Wydra and Black competed in the I-MECK singles tournament instead of combining forces for the doubles tournament. Both players agreed their USTA experience gave them a better shot at postseason singles success. They both enjoy a close relationship where they can speak their minds without hurting each other’s feelings. That honesty was forged by their team-first commitment and proven again throughout the season.
It also inspired their coach.
“Collin and Ryan have been a big factor in developing the other players on this team,” said Hansen. “I’ve learned a lot from those young men. They’ve helped me grow as a coach.
“The key to their success is that they didn’t come out with selfish intentions.”