They came to Cornell almost four years ago — new recruits eager to compete. Yet their first taste of collegiate tennis did not come against Harvard or Yale — instead the freshmen started play against each other, in preseason matches to determine who would make the team.
A month from now, these same men will leave here not as freshmen opponents, but as senior teammates and friends — as athletes who have seen both the highs and lows of their sport, and as competitors who have represented their university with true sportsmanship.
But before the five seniors of the tennis team put down their rackets for the last time in Ithaca, they will have one final chance at collegiate glory. In their last four games, the veterans will hope to make every serve count, every volley matter, and maybe do something no Cornell team has ever done — earn a berth to the NCAA championships.
“It’s something we’ve been dreaming about for a long time,” said senior Scott Spencer last week.
The five seniors — Spencer, Zach Gallin, Scott Paltrowitz, Michael Schlappig, and Aravinda Neuman — are members of a Cornell team that was once one of the worst in the Ivy League. But today, led by head coach Barry Schoonmaker, they are members of a nationally ranked, 13-5 squad — one of the best in the Ancient Eight.
But tennis is still an individual sport, and each player has made his own athletic journey over these last four seasons.
When Scott Spencer arrived at Cornell in 2000, he was once of the team’s top recruits. But injury kept off him the courts for his freshmen year, and it was not until the California native’s junior year that he was able to play a whole season healthy.
“[The injury] puts things in perspective,” he said. “Sometimes you may lose, but you’re still lucky to be out there.”
Once healthy, Spencer proved why he had been one of California’s top high school players. He went 19-5 during the 2003 campaign, and earned the team’s Most Improved Player Award. This year he has continued to play well at both No. 4 singles, and at No. 2 doubles, where he joins Zach Gallin for the team’s most experienced doubles pairing.
Gallin, from Setauket, N.Y., has played at the No. 1 singles spot for the last two years. One of the Ivy League’s best players, the hard-hitting Gallin has managed a 17-7 singles record this season. He has defeated several top opponents, including No. 72 Jakob Paulsen of Texas Tech, and No. 98 Jonathan Chu of Harvard.
His leadership at the top of the lineup will be of great importance for the rest of the season. Next week, Cornell will face a highly-ranked Brown team, as well as a Yale squad which has recently shown a good deal of strong play and determination.
Determination is something upstate native Paltrowitz knows a lot about. As a freshman, he had to fight hard to earn a spot on the team, and he’s continued to fight ever since.
“I ended up being one of the last guys to make it,” he said. “It was a huge accomplishment — one of the hardest I’ve worked for.”
“The team has been growing every single year,” he said. “We were at the bottom of the Ivy League, struggling for wins. Now we’re contending for the title.”
After a successful winter season, the Red opened up Ivy League play April 3, with a 5-2 win against Columbia. It was just the second time Cornell had defeated the Lions since 1980.
“Columbia is a team that we’ve historically done pretty poorly against,” Paltrowitz said. “It was everything you would want an Ivy League match to be.”
Last Friday, the Red defeated Dartmouth, 7-0. But on Saturday, the netters lost, 6-1, to No. 20 Harvard. The Crimson, a perennial Ivy champion, is again the overwhelming favorite to win the league title — and the automatic NCAA tournament berth that comes with it. Cornell will therefore almost certainly need an at-large bid to make the tourney.
“Realistically, we’re going to have to win out [for a chance],” Paltrowitz said.
But no matter the finish, Paltrowitz says the senior netters will enjoy the next few weeks.
“Either [a senior] can’t wait for it all to be over, or he savors every moment and plays hard until the end,” he said. “I think we have the latter of those attitudes. We want to finish as strong as possible and prove that Cornell is a top team.”
Archived article by Ted Nyman
Sun Staff Writer