Jason Birkelbach, Contributing Writers
As Michael Nelson prepared to break his opponent’s serve in the middle of the second set, his team prepared its support of him.
“Next point get loud,” a teammate said.
“Rub some salt in the wound,” another said as Nelson’s opponent staggered to the end line. “A lot of salt.”
The Hamilton player served. Nelson returned the ball with ease. His opponent’s return effort fell short of the net. Cheers erupted from Oneonta’s bench. The salt had been applied.
The Red Dragons men’s and women’s tennis teams showed no shortage of enthusiasm even in defeat as the teams lost 5-4 and 9-0, respectively, to Hamilton college at home on Thursday, September 17.
The losses put the men’s record at 0-2 and the women’s at 1-3. Last season, the Red Dragon men lost 9-0 to Hamilton.
“If there’s ever a moral victory, it exists here,” head coach Lonnie Mitchell said. “They [Hamilton] have to compete with the best teams in the country, so for us to just even come that close, it says a lot about our program. We have solid tennis players. We can play with anybody.”
The men’s effort began with its number one doubles team of Nelson and Matthew Richards. The duo defeated Hamilton’s Jonathan Cohen and Eyad Nagori 8-3, a match which drew cheers one might hear at a football game.
The number two doubles team of Cole Laffitte and Joseph Morris lost 8-5, and the number three team of Joe D’Orazio and Andrew Emanuel won 8-2. Entering singles play, the Red Dragons led 2-1.
Those who did not play still contributed to the team effort. With every point came shouts of support, tennis jargon, and oddities like “make that hurt” or “that’s leg day.” This kind of vehement support, however, is uncommon in traditional tennis settings.
“ATP tour tennis and WTA tennis, it’s very quiet. You can’t talk during the points. You only cheer for your player, but in college all those rules go away,” team captain Joe Morris said. “You can be as loud and as boisterous as you want. You can get the crowd involved. You can mentally destroy them. It really bothers the other team.”
The team picked up its first singles win behind Nelson’s effort over Hamilton number one, Ian Antonoff. Following the break point that won him game one of set two, Nelson picked up two more games.
On the final point of game three, Nelson forced Antonoff to the back of the court. Then, after Antonoff’s return hit, Nelson dropped a precise, backspin-ridden shot just in front of the net on Antonoff’s side. Antonoff sprinted forward, lunging, but the ball, as if influenced by a Jedi, hung straight up in the air then dropped in.
Again, the team erupted with shouts of “Let’s go O.” Antonoff retired after the point, giving Nelson the 6-3, 3-0 (ret) win.
“I thought I was being patient, really moving him around. I had a slow start, but when I figured out his weaknesses, I think I really exploited them,” Nelson said.
Nelson is a junior transfer student from Nassau Community College. He says the team’s enthusiasm is something he’s not entirely used to. However, he feels that enthusiasm and overall mindset are assets.
The team’s crush-their-spirit mentality can be traced back to its win over Rochester Institute of Technology last April. The team was down 4-1 in a best-of-nine match. As the remaining matches played out, the team surrounded the court closest to finishing.
The teammates rallied around their players, cheering, shouting, and supporting. They took a match. 4-2. They moved to the next. They rallied there. 4-3. They moved again. They rallied again. 4-4. Until finally, the team won the match 5-4.
The team employed the same strategy Thursday. After Nelson’s match, the team moved forward, lining the fence to support freshman Joe D’Orazio, who was locked in a tiebreaker set against Hamilton’s number one doubles player Eyad Nagori.
D’Orazio was playing just his second collegiate match and was looking to prove himself. Armed with a howitzer-esque serve and feeling no pressure, D’Orazio just swung away, and the tie breaker—a first-to-ten set—wore on. The players exchanged words often between points.
“He didn’t really like how loud my teammates were,” D’Orazio said. “He couldn’t deal with it.”
D’Orazio added to the noise with a roar after Nagori’s final shot fell short of the net, giving D’Orazio the 10-8 win. However, Matthew Bahar and Cole Laffitte had lost their matches, leaving the team score at 4-3 with two matches remaining.
The teams filtered onto the remaining courts for the final two matches.
“Let’s get as obnoxious as them,” a Hamilton player said as his team walked to the far gate. Hamilton didn’t get as loud as Oneonta, but they out played the Dragons in the final two matches.
Jack Cissicchio defeated Richards in a 10-3 tie breaker, and Johnathan Cohen defeated Andrew Emanuel in two sets, 6-2, 7-5 to seal Hamilton’s 5-4 win.
“I think there’s a lot more to be proud of today than there is to be ashamed of,” coach Mitchel said. “It’s what I visualized when I got to the college four years ago that I’d have a family, a group of players that would rally around each other.”