Photo by Bill Roseberry
Marquette senior Nick Berkenbile points to the heavens after scoring a point against Highland on April 27 at Lewis and Clark Community College. The Explorers topped the Bulldogs 9-0 and entered this week with a 9-1 record on the season.
The Marquette Catholic boys’ tennis team is having a successful season on the court, but they are doing it with heavy hearts.
Entering this week, the Explorers sported a 9-1 record and are gearing up for the postseason, which begins May 20-21 at the Edwardsville Sectional. The philosophy is simple; they’re winning for Zack.
Zack Hunter was a junior at MCHS and a beloved member of the tennis team who passed away on April 17. Hunter’s death was due to complications from injuries suffered in a car crash on April 1. He and Explorer teammate Jon Claywell were returning from playing tennis at Principia College when the wreck occurred.
Claywell only suffered minor physical injuries in the crash, but the sadness over the loss of Hunter has taken its toll on him and his teammates.
Now the Marquette netters have one goal in mind when they take the court — win for their fallen friend and teammate.
“It’s tough and you just have to take it day by day,” Claywell said. “That’s all you really can do. At times it can be a good distraction and at times it’s hard to stop thinking about it, but the thinking can motivate you in a really good way. He would want us to keep fighting. That’s the way Zack was; he was always fighting.”
The Explorers worked diligently in the offseason to polish their games and become better players; hence the torrid start. They are just trying to stay focused through the tragedy.
“We’ve had a great start,” Alex Cousley said. “It’s definitely been hard over the last few weeks since Zack’s crash, but we seem to keep going along. I play for him and that’s made me play a lot harder than I had been. I play harder to make him happy because I know he isn’t here.”
Teammate Joe Segneri added, “Like Alex said, we all play for Zack. In the (Highland) match I lost a couple games and said a little prayer to Zack and it helped me motivate. It motivated me and the team.”
For second-year Marquette head coach Mike Walters, the loss of Hunter was a tragedy no coach can prepare his kids to wrap their heads around. It definitely transcends sports and Walters is just surprised and impressed with the mental fortitude the Explorers have been able to show during matches.
“It’s really amazing that these kids are even wanting to play right now,” Walters said. “They were really good friends with Zack and after the accident they were down and then when he passed away I was kind of expecting them to come out and say, ‘Can we have some time off, coach?’ But instead we’ve beaten a good Highland team and a good Greenville team, so I was happy with that.
“The tough part is when they’re playing you can just see sometimes they lose focus and it’s going to Zack.”
With Hunter — who was also a standout hockey player and a MVCHA all-star with the Alton Redbirds during the winter — as part of the squad, the Marquette netters pushed themselves in the offseason. Walters saw a drastic improvement from the junior Claywell, who is now playing No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles with senior Nick Berkenbile.
“Jon’s in better shape, he’s keeping the ball in and when somebody hits a short ball Jon’s not afraid to attack it,” Walters said. “Last year he would just kind of push it back.”
Walters won’t take credit for the improvement. He gives it all to his players.
“They all played all summer and when you play all summer you get a lot better,” Walters said. “I wouldn’t say it’s because of my coaching; it’s when these kids get out and they hit and they play, they all went to camps and you can see the difference between last year and this year.
“(Claywell and Berkenbile) played a lot over the summer together and they played a lot in Edwardsville against the Edwardsville kids, so when they’re playing that level of opponent it makes them a lot better.”
The only blemish on the record so far is a loss to rival Jersey, a team the Explorers will see in sectionals.
Members of the Marquette tennis team include: Claywell, Berkenbile, Segneri, Cousley, Daniel McCluskey, Peter Wendle, Nathan Walters, Tom Morrissey, Nick McCune, Ryan Hecksel, Dylan Hamm and Mark Vitali. The Explorers graduated no one from the ‘15 squad.
When they enter the Edwardsville Sectional, it will be the last time for a one-class system in the IHSA for tennis. It expands to two classes in the fall of ‘16 for the girls. Marquette will be in a pool with Edwardsville, Alton, Jersey, Civic Memorial, Metro East Lutheran, Roxana and East Alton-Wood River this season.
It’s just a matter of remaining focused and working hard if they want to push guys through to state.
“We need to keep practicing, keep working hard, doing the right things and if we can really get our spirits up and play as a team we can do very well at sectionals,” Claywell said.
And Walters knows they’ve got someone watching over them, giving them strength and motivation to succeed.
“Zack’s up there saying, ‘Come on guys, win.’ Or as Zack always said, ‘Don’t worry coach, I’ll kick his ass,’” Walters said, grinning. “I’m sure he’s up there looking down and God’s saying, ‘You can’t use that word.’
“Zack was just a kid that wanted to learn and wanted to win. I think some of these guys are starting to see that, or saw that. I’ve been talking to them and they’re starting to realize they have to want to win.”
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