The worst feeling is knowing that you could have done more
I spent my junior season enjoying all that college had to offer. I had my first girlfriend, tried to pledge a fraternity, and learned the nightly specials at each of the three bars in town. All the while I somehow maintained the number-one tennis ranking in Division III. Things were going pretty well and my self-esteem was high.
One afternoon that winter, one of our team captains pulled me aside in the team room. He told me that even though I was at the top of the rankings, he knew I could dig a little deeper during practice. He felt like I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough in the workouts, and that I needed to help lead the team. My response? “You are the captain, you lead the team.” Rather than snapping back at me, Tommy said calmly, “Eric, you play #1 singles on this team. People are watching what you do and how you do it.”
Tommy embodied the idea of “team.” He was among a group of five seniors who were almost annoyingly perfect in terms of how hard they worked and how much they supported everyone else. As freshmen recruits, they were a group from whom no one had really expected much; many of them had been multi-sport athletes in high school, which meant less time for tennis development. Only two of them had started in the lineup as freshmen, but by their senior year the five “phenoms” (as we called them) took up the 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 positions on our team. That kind of improvement was not unprecedented on our team, but it certainly testified to the type of people these guys were.
Seeing his leadership as a captain firsthand, it was no surprise to me when Tommy Valentini took over as head men’s tennis coach at Gustavus.
We arrived at the NCAA Championships in Santa Cruz as the favorites to win the title. Our semifinal opponent was a talented but young team from Emory, and we had defeated them earlier that season to win the National Indoors. At NCAAs, we won the doubles point, which meant we needed only three singles wins to move on. After four singles matches, we led 3-2 overall, and our number 4 player was down a set and a break while I was up in the third against Mark Odgers, a freshman I had beaten earlier in the season. In other words, the match was on my racket.
Mark was playing well that day. We split the first two sets and worked our way into a third. I remember searching for a little something more and not being able to find it, both physically and mentally. As the match went to a third set tiebreaker, I really started to panic. I knew I hadn’t done the preparation that would have allowed me to raise my level. I couldn’t stop my mind from flashing back to the late nights and the mindless practices. Mark won the tiebreaker convincingly, and Emory moved on to the finals.
Steve Johnson was on four NCAA Championship teams at USC and won two individual NCAA singles titles. He lost only one match (as a freshman) in four NCAA Tournaments.
Before we left the parking lot, our coach spoke about how proud he was of our fighting spirit and even complimented me on my sportsmanship, but I didn’t want to hear it. I could hardly make eye contact with him, let alone any of the five seniors. I’d admired and looked up to each of them for two years, and they deserved to win that tournament. Knowing I had let them down was devastating.
The next fall I spent some time with my coach truly delving into that particular loss, which had bothered me intensely all summer long. We talked about the difference between disappointment and regret. Many losses are disappointing, but what I felt—what I couldn’t shake—was regret. Regret that I’d allowed myself to be distracted and lazy when my teammates weren’t, and that they wouldn’t have another opportunity to recover what I’d lost for all of us.
Gustavus Men’s Tennis were the 2002 MIAC champions, and placed third in the NCAA Tournament. Back row (L-R): Coach Steve Wilkinson, Nick Crossley, Josh Heiden, Kyle Anderson, Eric Butorac and Tommy Valentini. Front row(L-R): Kevin Whipple, Daryn Collins and Mike Hom.
I decided that fall that I never wanted to feel that way again, and I spent my senior season doing everything I could to be prepared for each match, which meant practicing self-discipline and full effort both on and off the court. I went on to have a perfect record in Division III, ending my career with singles and doubles titles at the NCAA tournament and a lot of individual praise and recognition. That one loss probably changed the course of my career more than any other moment. I learned a lot about the value of knowing your priorities and making choices to support them.
What I also learned, though, was that opportunities come and go. Sometimes you simply miss your window, and there’s no guarantee there will be another one. It takes a whole team to win an NCAA team title, and the opportunity for our team was there the year before. I never won one but I never really deserved it. There are still five guys out there—in their mid-thirties, now—who did.