Aug. 24, 2004
"My kind of town, Chicago is." This was one of the first things I saw when walking off the plane in the C concourse at O'Hare International Airport. Lyrics made popular by old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, they added a sense of excitement to a poster that hung at Gate C28. Chicago, however, was the gateway to Kalamazoo, Michigan, the final stop of my month-long Recruiting Road Rules tour. The Nats at the Zoo, short for the National Hardcourt Championships at Kalamazoo, featured players in the Boys 18s and 16s divisions. Like the clay courts in Washington D.C., my recruiting focused primarily on the 18s, however there were several Bronco prospects that competed in the 16s. The Zoo was the final national tournament of the summer before senior year began for many of these young tennis players. Most competitors strengthened or narrowed their list of potential future schools following this event, while the plethora of college coaches on hand made final evaluations of their targeted prospects. To both parties, the Zoo was a big deal and another opportunity to make one lasting impression. The drive out to Michigan took longer than usual as the highways were full of construction and 18-wheelers. I decided to cut my trip in half and stopped in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, to meet up with Bob and Bobbi Nelson, parents of Bronco Tennis graduate, Lars Nelson. It was nice to catch up with the Nelsons again as we had not seen each other since Lars' wedding last summer. A run on the dunes, a dip in Lake Michigan, a homemade meal and a nice night's sleep were just the right ingredients to prepare myself for the busy week that lay ahead at the Zoo. Like clay courts, a coaches expo kicked off the tournament and several Bronco prospects stopped by to say hi. They were very excited for the start of the tournament and some shared their mental and physical preparations for the event. Others asked questions about our courses of study and class curriculum, the upcoming season and schedule of competition, the incoming freshmen and soon-to-be graduating seniors and potential dates for official visits. As players weaved their way in and out of the expo, casual conversation and laughs were also shared with coaches that had tables nearby. There were two playing sites for the tournament. Stowe Stadium, located on the campus of Kalamazoo College (or "K College"), served as tournament headquarters, while "Western", short for Western Michigan University, also hosted many matches only a couple of minutes away. The weather was uncharacteristically cool, however, the traffic was the same as usual. Hundreds of volunteers, parents, players, coaches and local citizens swarmed both sites throughout the event to watch their favorite superstar. The Zoo was known for its rich tradition and history, as many all-time tennis greats like Ashe, Connors and Chang competed in the event. A couple of other staples were afternoon trips to the concession stand for fresh blueberries and frozen yogurt and daily runs to Jimmy Johns for tasty sandwiches. This event was a big deal to this small Midwest town. Lightpole banners adorned the streets, banners hung from many local businesses and everyone in town knew about the tournament. This was it...the grand showcase of all the junior tournaments. I was ready to go and prepared for the home stretch of the recruiting trail. Each day began with an early wake-up call and breakfast at the Brineys (Bruce, Cheryl and their beagle Otis were tremendous hosts), a stop at the local Starbucks for a quick jolt of energy and non-stop evaluating at both Stowe and Western. The same routine continued daily, with a new thought or impression captured from particular matches and conversations. A lot was seen and learned while I sought out the special group of future Broncos. They were out there and it was fascinating to think who that would be.