FROM WARRIOR TO FIGHTING IRISH

Written by Alex Toliver
6/3/20

I first wanted to take the opportunity to thank all of the coaches involved in my progression as a man, and as an athlete. Mark Noe, Mark Woldmoe, Brian Smith, the entire Epkey family, Hector Clavijo, Brandon Currie, Bren Vasalakis, T.J Greggs, Spencer Piston, Scoville Jenkins, and Russell Toliver. (Just naming a few sorry if I left anyone out!) Thank you for putting up with my attitude, and I hope this story can highlight where a lot of that misguided anger came from. 


I guess I’ll start with my upbringing. My father was a very good wrestler back in the day and even coached our junior Olympic wrestling team against Australia, Alaska, and Turkey. So naturally I grew up wrestling competitively. My mother played club tennis in college, but nothing too competitive. My sister played tennis and was playing #1 singles for Warren Central’s girls tennis team and naturally I wanted to beat her in everything, so I started playing tennis. I started taking beginner classes with NJTL, which is a program co-founded by the legendary Arthur Ashe and brought to Indianapolis by the legendary Barbara Wynne. By the time I reached 8th grade, my father made me choose between tennis and wrestling. I chose tennis.

 
 

High school tennis was when I truly began to experience adversity due to my skin color. My freshman year, I attended Warren Central High School, who was known for having an incredible football and basketball team. It was more socially acceptable for a black kid to ride the bench on the football or basketball team than it was for a black kid to pick up a racquet and try tennis, especially on the east side of Indianapolis. I was teased when I would bring my racquet to school, speak properly, make good grades, and wear form fitting clothing by the same people I identify with. And not to mention, the hostility towards African Americans that still exists today. Earl Sweatshirt said it best, “Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks”. I was an incredibly conflicted teenager.  


At Warren Central, I had great success playing the number one singles position that year, but my greatest accomplishment was during my match against Cathedral High School. Every year, Cathedral would use playing Warren Central as an opportunity to play their junior varsity players in the varsity line-up due to the fact that Warren Central has never truly excelled in tennis. But this year, Mark Noe, coach of Cathedral, saw that I had beaten Noblesville’s state quarterfinalist in straight sets, and had a decent match with the soon to be state champion Nick Chappell. I’m assuming that Coach Noe didn’t want to take any chances against Warren this year, so he played his full varsity lineup with the idea that this would be a quick trip to the east side of Indianapolis. He matched me up against a well celebrated senior named Luke Bielawski who expected to beat me handily, but he was surprised to find out that this would not be the case. I ended up beating him with no skill set, just pure athleticism. I was just running around chasing the ball and putting it over the net with the topspin I had learned a couple of months before.  At the moment, this just seemed like an underdog win against a successful school, but this win would set the tone for my education and my athletic career. During my match, Coach Noe watched my game and saw potential in me to become a great player, so he talked to my father and suggested that I apply to Cathedral. That summer I applied to Cathedral, took all the entrance exams, and began attending school in the fall. Adjusting to the difficult curriculum, making friends, and making the transition of once being the majority, to becoming a minority at my school were easy changes, but once I began playing tennis, I started experiencing difficulties.


I made my debut on the Cathedral men’s tennis team my sophomore year and little did I know, I would be sending shockwaves throughout the athletic department. Everyone was very friendly for the first few weeks, but as soon as challenge matches started and spots were in jeopardy, everyone began treating each other differently. My first match was against Travis Mandrell, who had played two singles the previous year, and expected to play one singles this year. After I beat him pretty handily, he impressively, threw his racquet over a full deck of courts into the woods that were behind our courts. My next challenge match was against Will Adams, who was a freshman at the time and a household name in junior tennis. I beat him handily, and due to his status as a freshman, there was not much outrage from anyone about him playing two singles that year, and the year after that. This would be the first time in Cathedral history that an African American male played number one singles for the school. My senior year was when everything started to change and became more controversial. 

 
 

My senior year, Will and I played 5 challenge matches. Each match was nastier than the last, and I can only imagine how conflicted the coaches were having two of their best players completely diminish their friendships over a singles spot. Not to mention, the division that was created between the parents as well as our teammates, picking sides of this altercation. During our last challenge match before season, with Will’s mother, our assistant principal, and other parents in attendance, and not to mention, the assistant coach as a line judge, we began to play. At about 3-2 in the second set, after holding my serve, I proceeded to walk over to the score card (like a jerk, no one really needs to change the score card when the set score is even) and change the score to 4-2. Will began to call out that it wasn’t game yet and proceeded to switch the scorecard back to 3-2. Our assistant coach, who had been calling the score out after every point, confirmed that I had held my serve that game. Will refused to play another point until the situation was resolved in his favor, and I did the same. So with the beginning of the season starting, and parents and players extremely angry, coach Noe made the decision to have us switch every single match playing 1 and 2 singles. 


This agreement was fine until the conference tournament came. Will and I had to play one more challenge match to decide who would be locked in at #1 singles. With no excuses, Will came prepared for this match. Hitting drop shots to bring me into the net, passing me afterwards, lobbing me, or just simply making me volley (never had volleys, never will). I remember the feeling of fatigue, frustration, and hopelessness during this match. Losing my fight and succumbing to the pressure of the situation lob after lob, drop shot after drop shot (tanking, we’ve all been there). The fear of coming home to my father and telling him I had lost, after all the lectures of overcoming adversity, chips on my shoulders, and overcoming oppression. I do not discredit my father for instilling 

these values in me, I’m sure they are the same values his mother instilled into him, and a lot of these values made me into the man I am today. But these messages made me manifest an incredible amount of rage when I would face adversity, and my excuses for failure lacked accountability in most situations. There was an incredible amount of pressure put on me to succeed especially since I’m an African American male playing a sport dominated by Caucasians. With all of this said, I was able to bounce back and finish the season with a little help from the socio psychological phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecy. “They didn’t want you playing #1 anyway, so just finish your season and focus on preparing for college tennis”. I became very good at creating adversity when it wasn’t necessarily there, and I apologize to everyone (including line judges and players!) negatively affected by my anger, including all of the racquets I damaged, along with my dad’s wallet.    


Sorry for the tangent, lets get back to the rest of the season.

 
 

Will went on to lose to that year’s quarterfinalist Michael Moe. For those who were able to watch, this match was insane. There were attempts to post-pone the match because of the sun setting (North Central has lights on their courts), both Mark and Coach Krauter, Guerin’s head coach were on each side of the net acting as line judges.  After the loss, Will stormed off the court with his parents and quit the team, forcing us to bring a player from junior varsity to the one position against Carmel, a team who eventually became undefeated state champions. Just thought I’d add that Elliot Yee beat me like a drum at the two spot that match as well. So just like that, my high school tennis career was over. The end of season talk after that match might as well have been, “Well f***, we went through all of this to have our season end like this”. I remember feeling relieved to start a new chapter in my life, but was and am still embarrassed about how things played out that season. 


Will and I currently live in Atlanta and we were able to reconnect after I went to Kennesaw State University to play tennis. It’s easy for us to laugh at the things we thought were so important back in the day. I still consider Will as my brother and his family to be my family as well and I still talk and hangout with Will consistently. Interestingly enough, part of the reason we chose colleges so far away, was to get away from the politics of junior tennis in Indianapolis, or maybe for a fresh start.  Also since my dad told me that I was going to IUPUI, so I proceeded to choose the school that gave me the most money that was located as far away as possible-Kennesaw State University. However I did end up transferring and playing for IUPUI (you win Russell). My college tennis experience is a different story for a different day. 


The last time I saw Coach Noe was at IRC maybe back in 2017, in passing, and we both said we need to set up a time to grab a coffee and catch up. I still have no ill feelings towards him or anyone who was involved and can’t wait to catch up with him one day (maybe with Will present) over some beers.

 
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