The Conference Championship

In 1997, I was in my senior year of high school. I was the most tenured member of the high school tennis team, which itself was a bit of a surprise. For context, I've played tennis since I was 9 and started getting lessons at 11. This was entirely self-directed, in that, no one in my family had ever picked up a tennis racquet for real. My interest in tennis initially confused my (young) parents who thought it was going to be another one of my ideas that was going to cost them nebulous amounts of money, and at first, they were resistant to me playing.

Once they realized that we just happened to live in the best community in New Jersey for tennis public programs, thanks to a retired HS teacher who was bit by the tennis bug in his 50s, it was a lot easier to understand where I was all the time. 

Anyway, back to high school. In New Jersey, high school tennis teams are comprised of 7 players (3 singles players and 2 doubles teams) and each match they play is worth one point. The school with the most points wins the "dual match" against the other school akin to any other sport where two schools compete. Our team always had a few good singles players, but doubles depth was harder for us to come by. By the time my class ascended, we increasingly developed more depth that made us pretty formidable. 

While this was great for the team, it was bad for me personally. As a relatively fringe player, I mostly hovered around that 6th or 7th spot on the team on a good day. My first two years, this meant that I played way more matches than my talent level warranted. 

In fact, my freshman year by the end of the season most of the players actually quit the team because there was a clash in cultures between my coach being hard-lined about what he wanted -- he was in his 70s at the time -- and our guys on the team who didn't appreciate this. (I'm sure reflecting back, those guys would regret the stuff they said, but when you're a teenager and already a senior, you imagine you're a lot more invincible than you are.) By the end of my freshman season, we had 3 guys left on the team and I played singles for the only 3 times of my high school career, which made absolutely no sense at all given how bad I was then. 

During my junior year, Coach didn't play me a lot. What's funny is, I got a lot better that year and so I'd have helped the team more than I did the previous two years when I was often a liability on the court but I ensured we didn't forfeit matches, but by my junior year we had a lot of depth and he preferred to use some of the converted basketball players we'd turned into tennis players. They weren't better than me -- I'd gained a lot of experience -- but sometimes coaches slot you into a spot in their heads and it can be hard to get out of that.

Still, I kept coming and I was essentially the player-manager on the squad. I'd always kept the books for the team. I'd track matches in this green paper book that coach bought every year, and I'd call the local newspapers with the match results and at the end of the season, you'd get a check in the mail from both papers for this service. It wasn't bad money for what took a few minutes. 

My senior year, we were better than we'd ever been. I was back in the lineup too, and I won more matches (all doubles, obviously) in my senior year than I had in the previous 3 years combined. (I won 9 matches from 9th-11th grade. I won 9 my senior year) We started the year 13-0 before we lost a match, finished the year tied for the most tennis wins in school history -- 17 -- but we also did something the team from 1991 (the team we were always compared to, because they went 17-3) didn't get to claim and that's a conference championship.

For whatever reason, the now-dead Watchung Conference used to award division championships by splitting the league in half. The divisions seemed permeable and a way to even out the competition every year, but I think for minor sports like tennis, they didn't really pay much attention to awarding titles at all because there was one dominant team -- Westfield HS -- that always won the conference and they didn't care about conference titles because they win state all the time.

But for us, it was a huge deal. I noticed the division alignment from the newspaper and realized that as we were on our winning streak that we were going to win ours if we kept winning. I don't think anyone else cared about this on other teams, because 1) even my coach had no idea these were a thing and 2) I wasn't sure they give you anything for it.

Still, as the season waned and we kept winning, coach told me to make sure all of our match results were documented in the green book because he had a form to fill out to send to the conference. He did that and sure enough two weeks later, he bought us pizza because we were named Co-Conference Champions. As it turns out, rather than award "division titles," the Watchung Conference opted to name two conference champions for each of the division winners. 

In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense to me. For our school, we'd never claimed one in tennis and after that, the school did indeed put a banner up recognizing that Conference Championship, which was the only time the boys team even to this day has claimed a conference title. (The successor conference indeed awards 'division championships')

I like this story because had I not said anything, we probably would've have gotten anything and the whole thing would've gone unrecognized because it's tennis and nobody really pays attention. Still, it was a fun recognition point for my teammates at the end of our year once we got bounced out of the state tournament and I remember vividly that coach would proudly tell people that we'd won our division throughout the rest of the year and the summer when I saw him talking to folks.

I had a lot of proud moments in my dual player/manager role, but hanging a conference banner might be my most proud. 

A compendium of stuff I don't want to forget