It takes just seven players to field a high school varsity tennis match. So especially in the larger high schools, that forces some talented players to compete in relative obscurity in junior varsity matches.
Case in point would be Rose-Hulman freshman Ray Montgomery.
Montgomery, a Terre Haute South graduate, has burst on the scene with the Rose-Hulman men’s tennis team. After a brief stint at doubles early in the season, he was inserted at No. 6 singles and has reeled off an 11-4 won-lost record.
Not coincidentally, that tweak in the lineup played a role in the Engineers recovering from an uncharacteristic 0-4 start to win nine of their last 11 matches; the Engineers qualified as a No. 4 seed in the recent Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
Montgomery’s sudden success could be labeled a surprise, after he generally played JV doubles at South. He recalled playing in just eight varsity matches during his prep career.
“I just wasn’t high enough on the line. There were plenty of people better than me that deserved those spots,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery is not one for making excuses either, but he was slowed by ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) knee surgery in the spring of his junior year — an injury incurred while a member of the Braves’ track team, the 4x800 relay being his specialty.
“I don’t know if I could have made varsity full-time my senior year, but the junior year was all done and over … I just don’t want to use the ACL as an excuse,” Montgomery said.
How did he land at No. 6 singles with the Engineers?
“Coach [Dan Hopkins] decided to switch me and the [No.] 6 singles guy, because he was having a little trouble at singles,” Montgomery said. “He switched him to doubles and put me at 6 singles, to see if we’d have more success and we have.”
Playing at No. 6 singles — there are six singles matches in NCAA Division III matches — might not sound overly dramatic, but Montgomery was “the man” in at least two key HCAC victories this season.
“He had the winning point against Hanover, then one against the College of Mount St. Joseph … that one in three sets,” Hopkins noted.
“I didn’t know I was the fifth point [against MSJ] until I got off the court, and [teammates] said ‘Dude, you were the fifth point.’ And I go, ‘Cool,’ ” Montgomery smiled.
Hopkins and Montgomery go way back as coach and player, a relationship nurtured in the Terre Haute Junior Tennis program.
“Dan, with 40-plus years of tennis … that’s a lot of experience,” Montgomery said.
“[Montgomery’s] very coachable, he takes advice, analyzes it, then uses it,” Hopkins said. Hopkins also pointed out another connection which makes their coach/player relationship click.
Hopkins coached Wes Kirk as a player, then Kirk would later coach Montgomery while an assistant coach at Terre Haute South.
“That makes it nice to talk to [Montgomery] on the court,” Hopkins said. “We use the same terminology that he used with Wes [Kirk].”
Speaking of South connections, Montgomery’s high school teammate Eric Fair is also a freshman this year for the Engineers. Fair, primarily a JV singles players for the Braves, has not cracked the Rose lineup — yet.
“Eric’s right there,” Hopkins said. “We had three seniors this year who earned their spots. [Eric] will play a ton next year.”
Is Montgomery looking to move up the line in singles at Rose?
“I’m not worried about moving up the ladder,” Montgomery stated. “Maybe in high school I worried about moving up the ladder a little bit more. It’s like ‘Man, I want to be higher up.’ But at this point, I think I’ve realized that if I’m not higher up it’s because they’re better than me, they should be up there.
“Most I can do for my team is do what I can do — win my point and cheer them on to win their points.”
Still, with an 11-4 record this year, a future advancement seems likely.
“That might come with time … my junior-slash-senior year,” Montgomery said. “But I don’t know how much I’ll improve. I’d have to say after I tore my ACL, I got better … which was ironic. So I don’t know what the future holds for me. I’ll see what happens.”
Montgomery is majoring in electrical engineering at Rose.
“I like the idea of electricity, how energy is transferred from metal to metal,” he said. “So many factors going into it. For about half my life, maybe two-fifths, wanted to be an electrician like my dad is.
“We did a job search thing in sixth grade, pick characteristics and it tells you what you want to be. Turns out there was electrician and there was electrical engineer. I thought electrical engineering, that’s more math and gets paid more. That’s why I chose electrical engineering.
“I kind of thought of [attending] Purdue, but I said no because Rose-Hulman is close to home. I wouldn’t have to move away from home. I’d still be with my family. That sounded cool.”
Rose concluded its season falling to No. 1 seed Earlham in the semifinals of the aforementioned HCAC Tournament in Indianapolis. Not as successful as last year’s HCAC championship team, but pretty good for a team that had to replace seven seniors.
“A big difference [this year] was a lack of experience … the whole team,” Hopkins said. “But as the season came to a completion, the team has gotten better and better.”
Montgomery earned his 11th win of the season vs. Anderson in their first-round tournament match. Montgomery had a no-decision vs. Earlham, the team match ending before his match could be completed.