A big step forward

The Alpena boys tennis team’s banner season in 2013 was a long time coming and for many of its players, it was the result of four years of hard work and personal growth.

The Wildcats took third in the Big North Challenge and earned wins over the likes of Harbor Springs, Petoskey and Bay City Central, tied with Cadillac and took three flights from Traverse City West.

But the Wildcats’ biggest accomplishment was finishing third at a regional in Flushing where Alpena narrowly missed qualifying for the state finals as a team. In addition, No. 1 singles Abram Purol became the first Alpena tennis player in at least 10 years to qualify for the state finals.

Alpena’s No. 1 doubles team of Samyak Harsh and Noah Barney-Steinke made Alpena sports history by being the school’s first regional doubles champion and Andre Gagnon earned second place at No. 2 singles.

“I think the kids really committed to being consistent, playing their game and just doing what they needed to do to win. I know that they’re better this year than they were last year, but it seemed like they had more pride in what they’re doing, they were more comfortable and they were just a lot more patient on the court,” Alpena coach Charlie Giordano said.

The most successful players on Giordano’s team started as freshmen and played all four years. Purol, Gagnon and Aaron Decaire have held their own at No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 singles respectively.

Decaire and other returners helped teach the younger players the finer points of tennis and Harsh and Barney-Steinke taught lessons at the APlex.

“I think that teaching helps us become better players. As we teach the juniors, we understand the game better and learn how to adapt to situations on the court we may not have considered otherwise,” Decaire said.

Others, like Gagnon, took the time to practice in the offseason to sharpen their skills.

“I was practicing with the pro athlete at the APlex (during the offseason) and that made a big difference in my ability this year,” he said.

Many of Giordano’s players have had to learn to adapt to different playing styles. In the past, they had struggled to change their own playing style to beat their opponents.

“Last year, there were times I saw them playing and it was almost like they would rather lose playing their style then changing their style a little bit and being a little more offensive,” Giordano said.

To be successful, his players had to learn how to adapt and increase the intensity of their offense by sometimes becoming a “pusher.”

“Generally, nobody wants to be a pusher on the tennis court, because he’s supposedly the guy who can’t put the ball away. But, 9 times out of 10 when you lose, you lost to that guy who just throws the ball back into play with no pace. The kids this year had the ability to push the ball back and they also had the ability to play defensively and to set the pace,” he said.

Each of Alpena’s players seemed to have a big moment this season. For Gagnon, his big moment came at regionals.

“Beating the number one-seated player at regionals was definitely the most memorable moment for me. It really helped make me feel like I’d really gotten great as a player,” he said.

For Decaire, it was a win against Petoskey.

“My most memorable moment was when I came back and beat (a player from) Petoskey twice after losing the first set,” he said.

Many of Giordano’s seniors are interested in playing tennis after graduating. Harsh and Barney-Steinke are interested in intramural or club sports and Decaire hopes to play Division 3 tennis.

Their eagerness to continue their tennis careers emphasizes the appeal that Giordano found in tennis late in life.

“I know for a fact that tennis is a sport that, once you play it, you play it for life. I didn’t start playing until later in life. My dad always wanted me to play in high school, but I was a football player, a baseball player and I never took it seriously. Now, I can’t stop playing,” he said.

Giordano is graduating eight players this year including his four singles players and knows the Wildcats will have their work cut out for them in 2014.

“Next year, we’re in trouble. We got four kids coming back, one freshman I know for sure that’s going to come out and play. Hopefully, the success of the program gets some kids out wanting to play,” he said.

The success of his squad this year has Giordano thinking of new ways to improve his team and maintain a high level of success. One thing he’s considering his trying to find players with alternate seasons who might make good tennis players.

Giordano is also considering expanding the scope of Alpena’s competitive tennis program.

“We need to try to get kids ahead of time, maybe try to start competitive programs for junior high and for the fifth and sixth graders. That’ll help them get comfortable with (competing), and comfortable with the seasons,” he said.

Whatever methods Giordano takes to improve his team, his 2013 squad will have the memories of their success forever.

“I’ve been one doubles since freshmen year, but (winning at regionals) just felt like I actually did something for once. I’ve gotten better and better each year and I finally did something great,” Barney-Steinke said.

Eric Benac can be reached via email at ebenac@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.