Reprinted with permission from the Northfield News
NORTHFIELD, Minn. -- It’s often difficult to gauge from a distance the culture of a perennially successful program. From outside you could see things like 10 straight top-two conference finishes, a top-15 regional ranking through that same time period, and a trip to the national tournament in 2010. Knowing that without seeing the Carleton College men’s tennis program up close, you might think of the grind they must endure to keep that high-achieving level up each year.
Or you could stop online at the Carleton athletic website to glance at some match recaps. There are the pictures of the Knights dominating another opponent, and the breakdowns from coach Stephan Zweifel that clue into the actual culture in Carleton’s program.
Take Zweifel’s analysis of sophomore Paul Elbow in a Feb. 24 victory: "It was fun to watch Paul Elbow in the singles line-up today. His left-handed cross-court forehand allowed him to work his opponent’s backhand like Rocky Balboa on a side of beef."
Or freshman Richard Yeker’s win on Feb. 15: "Richard had a stellar debut at No. 6 singles today. His graceful moves and electrifying shot making made many of us finally forget the Beyonce Super Bowl halftime show."
And, welcome to the inside of Carleton men’s tennis.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” junior Nelson Wolf said.
In a sport that demands intense in-match focus for any kind of success, Carleton subscribes to the theory that there needs to be some fun mixed into a season that stretches from fall through spring. Zweifel described the energy of many practices like “a bunch of six-year-olds when the ice cream truck is driving through the neighborhood.”
Six-year-olds don’t tend to rip through their opponents like this, though. Carleton’s run over the last decade has shown the products of a very mature program, one that relies on the competitive desire and leadership of its own players to sustain itself.
RESPECT YOUR ELDERS
Carleton’s upperclassmen get it. Both Wolf and senior captain Paul Cooper said they understand the system that has been put in place and successfully regenerates itself: experienced players put out a strong example and help the incoming freshmen get plugged into the Knights’ hard-working, competitive approach to the college sport.
“We’ve always had strong freshman on the team, and we’ve able to consistently take that talent and develop into a good attitude, and a winning mentality and mindset,” Cooper said. “That has a large role to play with our recent success.”
Much like the Hydra of Greek myth, Carleton’s ability to replace out-going seniors with outstanding in-coming freshmen creates a steady cycle of excellence.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was clueless a bit,” Wolf said. “It’s a much different ball game [in college], and the system here is a really great way of the older people looking out for the younger ones and showing them how we do things here.”
That system is no accident, either; Zweifel said he is very intentional in the amount of responsibility he places on his players, especially his upperclassmen.
“The players know when they enter that this is very much a team not being micro-managed by their coach,” he said. “By the time they’re seniors they take a lot of pride in the fact they help make the decisions. They instill a confidence and a work ethic in the team. It rides a lot on their shoulders.”
In recent years the Knights have responded by using those shoulders to carry Carleton to new heights. A Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference playoff championship and trip to the national tournament in 2010 restructured the idea of success, and put a new goal on the table for current and future players.
“Getting back to nationals, that’s always one of our goals,” Wolf said. “We just keep working on things and we’ll see how it goes this year.”
So far so good: Carleton has won seven straight, including its most recent win with an 8-1 thumping of Division II St. Cloud State University. Its lone loss against Division II Michigan Tech also shows the attitude the Knights approach the season with.
“Pretty much everyone individually said, ‘That wasn’t the best I could do,’” Cooper said. “Even with the successful winter season, some guys came out and said, ‘These are some things I can work on…and try to get better as the season wears on.’”
Carleton’s school calendar is broken into trimesters and the Knights compete in every one of them. A three-week fall season gives time for tryouts and a season-opening tournament, followed in the second trimester by Carleton’s nine-match “winter season” to this point.
“That’s where the fundamental foundation is built, during that winter season,” Zweifel said.
To transition out of the winter and into the spring Carleton takes a spring break trip, this year to play three matches in California. Zweifel said Carleton’s recent success drew the attention of a 1968 alumnus in California when he read about the team online, and he offered up his home for the team to stay in throughout their trip.
The Knights’ next-door neighbor during their stay: Professional Golfers Association’s four-time major-championship winner Phil Mickelson.
“We’re definitely going to have fun,” Cooper said.
Enjoying each other’s company during the trip is a huge part of building up the comradery that makes Carelton’s system of players-looking-out-for-players so effective.
“We have fun traveling around together and it brings the whole team closer, which is only a good thing moving forward,” Cooper said.
Whatever steps Carleton takes forward this year will come off its foundation of success from past years. The Knights’ seniors were freshmen on the national-qualifying team, and their leadership to this point has helped Carleton continue to win while also keeping things in perspective.
“We’re all very competitive, and we want to win every single match,” Cooper said. “We know that’s not a reasonable goal…but we do want to set ourselves up to have the best chance. That mentality changed for me since I was a freshman. As a senior I say I want to put myself in the best possible situation to succeed.”
Those transitions are exactly the kind Zweifel said he sets out to have his players achieve.
“It used to frustrate me if the practices weren’t perfect. In the end I figured my role was to give my players the tools to figure stuff out, and then to just have patience,” he said. “It’s so much more worthwhile if they figure it out themselves. Me telling them 20 times and them figuring it out is like night and day. I’ve got to shut up sometimes. You’ve just got to trust them and let them work it out.”
Having a team annually given Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) All-Academic honors shows Carleton’s 12 players are usually pretty good at working just about anything out. That makes it pretty clear from any perspective – inside the program or out – that opponents just happen to be one of them.