La PORTE — The Slicers had this match circled on their boys tennis schedule, and the 5-0 result was indicative of the focus they had going into it Thursday.
Up four matches to none with the overall matchup with New Prairie sealed up, La Porte coach Don Varda leaned in and quietly muttered to his assistant coach, “C’mon, Brock. I really want to beat these guys.”
Freshman Brock Schultz was tied 3-3 in a decisive tiebreak in the final match. Any coach would love to see their player prevail in a similar situation, but this was different. Varda wanted this one more than usual.
The Slicers and Cougars were tied 2-2 in the first round of sectionals last year, the match coming down to the No. 2 singles players. Late in the match, New Prairie’s player started cramping. Play was halted, and a rule that states if a trainer is present — which the Cougars’ was — and play doesn’t resume after three minutes, then the team with the injured athlete forfeits.
Varda, a former NCAA line official, was fully aware of this rule. As soon as the New Prairie player went down, he began his stop watch. Not only did three minutes go by before play resumed, over six minutes passed and still nothing happened. Varda wanted to speak up about this technicality, but held back.
The Cougars ended up winning the match and the sectional, leaving a sour taste in many of the Slicers’ mouths.
“In a way, this was the best thing that could have happened to these guys,” said Varda, who’s returning most every player from last year’s team. “They were talented, but they needed to be beat. So before today’s match, I told them, ‘New Prairie is coming in here to beat you guys. Don’t let it happen again.’”
Varda’s blunt, yet deserving words woke up La Porte, as the Slicers cruised to the decisive victory over their county neighbors. The Cougars won just a single set across the five varsity matches.
And while La Porte dominated from top to bottom, the most impressive performance came from its No. 1 singles player, Andy Emmons. The senior won in straight sets 6-2 and 6-4, but it didn’t always seem like he had the match wrapped up.
After breezing in the first set, Emmons ran into a streaking Nick Boyd playing at the top of his game. Emmons fell behind three games to start the second set. If Boyd could seize the momentum for his team, the overall matchup gets much more interesting.
“When I was down 3-0, I was on the sideline and thinking about what I was doing wrong, what I was doing right,” Emmons said. “I thought back to the first set, came up with a bunch of ideas on how I could get back in this thing and used them well.”
A combination of consistency and attacking play wore out Boyd, and Emmons flipped the momentum right back around in La Porte’s favor by winning five straight games and six out of the final seven to take the match.
Varda praised his No. 1 player’s maturity, stating it’s not easy to have the composure to come back down three games to win a set. Emmons’ maturity and focus not only propelled him to victory, also setting an example for the rest of his teammates.
Minutes before the match started, Emmons strutted onto the center court, orange tennis bag over his right shoulder and white cap backwards, to meet the rest of the Slicers. There was a look of determination that took over his essence. He may not have said much, but he radiated the focus and serenity necessary for his team to take down New Prairie.
Emmons then walked over to his left and stood in the middle of a circle formed by his teammates. He preached about being calm and focusing on what you needed to do to help each other.
“Move as a team, walk as a team, win as a team,” he said. “It was all about doing everything as a team. Don’t let anyone fall down, don’t feel any pressure, and make everyone feel as best they can.”
That team-first mentality is rare in an individual sport such as tennis, but La Porte seems to have that down early on in the season. If the Slicers are to make a run at a sectional title of their own, putting each other first will surely be a driving factor behind their success.
They’re ahead of the curve in that aspect, and getting revenge over New Prairie is a great start for a La Porte team with high expectations.