When Logan Nicholson thinks back to his freshman year on the Evergreen tennis team, he chuckles.
“I was watching of video of myself back then,” Nicholson said. “I was like this tall (holding his hand to his shoulders) and I was like (in a high voice) ‘I love playing tennis.’ ”
Now a senior playing No. 1 doubles with junior Brandon Truong, Nicholson is bigger, stronger, wiser — the embodiment of the Evergreen High School boys tennis program.
But back during Nicholson’s freshman year, the Plainsmen’s tennis program was struggling — struggling to remain competitive and struggling to keep players in the program.
“It’s hard to keep kids interested in tennis when they are being demoralized every match,” coach Lee Emmert said.
So Emmert took the drastic step of asking some of Evergreen’s opponents — the top programs in the county — to leave their best players at home when they faced the Plainsmen.
“We told teams we would happily forfeit the (team) match to them,” Emmert said. “We just wanted to have matches that were meaningful for players on both sides.”
From that season, the Plainsmen were able to rebuild their program. The next season, they drew 20 players out. And more importantly, they finished that season with 20 players.
“That was my only measurement of success,” Emmert said.
This season, the Plainsmen are using different metrics to measure success. They have 27 players out for the program — after adding one more last week. And they are 4-3 on the season. Even in a loss last week to Heritage, five of the six matches went three sets.
“I’ve never seen Evergreen tennis this competitive in my life,” Nicholson said. “We have these underdog guys who come out and they’ve been on the court probably 30 percent of what their opponents have been on the court, and they pull off these big wins, and it’s awesome. People have dedication. They’re out here on the weekends playing. They stay after practice. … It’s the hard work that gets us there more so than the background or skill.”
Gurkaran “G” Aulja is a perfect example of that. A sophomore in his second year playing tennis, Ajiou is not only the Plainsmen’s No. 1 singles player but also their captain.
As the No. 1 singles player, Ajiou gets matched up with the opponents’ top player, who is often a club player with years of experience.
It often results in one-sided defeats for Ajiou, but he welcomes that challenge.
“It’s good for me because as the match is going on, I’m getting better and better,” he said. “Like in my first match, I was losing badly … but as the match kept going, I kept learning and learning.”
Even more important to the team is Ajiou’s attitude after taking a loss. It’s the reason his teammates agreed to make him captain, even though he was just a sophomore.
“I’ve never seen someone lose a match or get smacked like G,” Nicholson said, “and then come back and support every single teammate, and be the biggest guy on the team in terms of cheering everyone else on. G is phenomenal.”
And then there’s junior Tyler Livingston, who had never picked up a racket before being encouraged to come out for tennis his freshman year.
A baseball player who found that he could adapt his swing into a solid tennis stroke, Livingston is now Evergreen’s No. 2 singles player.
“I would have never expected that to happen when I started out,” he said.
He uses his experience to help draw other players to the sport.
“I got a bunch of my friends this year who were freshman to come out,” he said. “I was like ‘Yeah, just come out and try it. This is what happened to me my freshman year, and look what’s happened now.’ And now they’re feeling the same way. They’ll tell you that right now.”
Now the Plainsmen are competing, winning and even thinking about competing for a league title.
And they’re doing that without a bona fide ace, but through hard work, dedication and support for each other every day.
“That’s the biggest victory to me,” Emmert said.
Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep editor for The Columbian. He can be reached at (360) 735-4538, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow his Twitter handle @360TMart.