Raising the expectations


Matous Young preparing for a serve after practice.

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The Linfield University men’s tennis program welcomed Alex Martin as the interim head coach for the 2022–23 season. Coming into the program after acting as an assistant coach during the 2021–22 season, Martin knew the direction in which he wanted to lead the team. 

In order for his vision to become a reality, every single individual on the team had to be on board as well. 

Three of the veterans emerged as some of the leaders on the team this season after being a part of a group that was made up of eight underclassmen—no juniors or seniors—the previous year. After experiencing being a part of a team that wasn’t performing well on and off the court, Nick Gabelman, Rogue Stone and Matous Young realized they needed to change their behavior as a team in order to turn their reputation around. 

“[Martin] brought in different pieces that just fit in so well with us and that’s part of the reason why we get along and we can have success,” said Gabelman, a junior on the team. “If you’re the loudest team, you’re probably going to win.” 

Martin’s first priority was to get rid of the cliques and brokenness of the team. Instead of having groups of two or three players hanging out during matches and practices—sometimes on their phones, other times not supporting their teammates on the court—Martin made it a point for every single player to have a relationship with their teammates. 

“I’m so proud of the work that the guys have done to collectively change a team that was splintered. It was basically two or three teams in one,” Martin said. “So we started from the beginning. We took an entire Saturday and just hung out together and got to know each other.” 

The team spent those Saturdays spending time getting to know each other by simply sitting in a circle sharing parts of their lives to find mutual interests and connections. They also took part in a team activity where they were tasked to flip a towel over while all 14 of them had to stand on the towel the entire time. 

Martin also changed the culture of the by allowing his players to give him input on discipline. For example, when a team member arrives late to practice, instead of having just that one individual run lines, the entire team drops their gear and starts running with them. This was a decision that the entire team made together—not just Martin as the coach dictating how things would be. 

Martin prohibits any explicit songs being played during practice because he wants the team to perform the way they practice. 

“Everyone was on different pages, so when Alex came in the first thing he did was unify the team,” Young said. “That was his absolute first goal. We immediately went to work on just doing everything together.”

The team realized they needed to hold themselves to a high standard during practices so that they would act appropriately during matches. Some of the team members recall hitting their rackets in frustration or mumbling profanity, which resulted in point penalties during competition. However, now that the team is holding themselves to a high standard during workouts, their court behavior has improved. 

“One of the big things of the together part was discipline,” Young said. “Tennis is a lonely sport. You’re in your head a lot. You talk to yourself a lot. And occasionally, you’ve got to let out that frustration. Before Alex got here, you could get away with a lot of stuff, but today it’s absolutely not stood for at all. It does not represent Linfield in a good light and doesn’t represent yourself as a tennis player in a good light if you’re negative all the time on the court.” 

While Martin’s effort to improve the behavior and attitudes of the team on and off the court has made a difference in the character of the team, their growth as individuals hasn’t been the only improvement. Their tennis playing ability has collectively improved as well. 

The team improved to 3-5 in conference play during the 2022–23 season after going 1-7 in conference play during the 2021–22 season. While the team didn’t make the conference tournament, they were in the running up until their final match of the season. 

The overall competitiveness of the program has increased as Martin has implemented stricter methods of discipline and encouraged better attitudes. Sophomore Stone came in as the top player on the team during the 2021–22 season, but after a few Division I transfers joined the Linfield squad, Stone moved down to the second or third spot. 

While some athletes might have a difficult time going from being the best to having equally great players around them, Stone saw it as an opportunity to improve his craft. 

“It feels like I’m constantly trying to improve to take that one spot back,” Stone said. “Even though it’s kind of like a ladder that you’re working up and you’re competing against your teammates, there isn’t really any negative energy that develops between the guys. It’s just everyone trying to get better together.”

Last year, Stone found himself alone after practices, getting in extra hitting time. This year, he finds himself joined after practice by his teammates as they all work to improve their tennis skills together. This change has helped not only Stone improve his game, but it also helped the team improve their individual skills as well as bond together through hard work and dedication. 

Another place the team worked diligently to improve themselves was in the classroom. Martin, who also works as a high school teacher, came up with successful ways to keep his athletes on task with their academics. He implemented consistent grade checks and encouraged his athletes to communicate with their professors regularly. 

“I started doing grade check forms for all the guys,” Martin said. “The feedback I’ve gotten from professors, from admissions and from people around campus has been great. Knowing that we haven’t had any of those incidents that we had last year really felt like these guys have come a long way.”

Improving their conference record during the 2022–23 season may have been the only improvement on paper, but their growth as individuals, academic improvement and ability to work as a team points to a program poised to move up in the conference and national rankings in the years to come. 

“Every weekend, he took time away from his family to help us. I mean, he cares so much,” Young said. “Especially when he’s a father and a husband and works another job. He has other things that he could be doing, but I know that he wants to be here. Doing the discipline together was a big thing that brought us together. We kind of all suffered together, and we all succeeded together.”