Having it isn’t necessarily a must on a successful unit, but it certainly helps.
Long before their tear began and their historic 2017 campaign even started, Shawnee State tennis signee Nate Hinze and Gage Keller weren’t doubles partners or two excellent student-athletes making a statement amongst their Division II Southeast District brethren. In fact, they had somewhat of an adversarial relationship at the very beginning.
There’s Hinze — the proven veteran, the two-time defending SOC I Player of the Year from 2015 and 2016, and a three-sport standout — who is expected to mentor Keller — this young hot-shot who, as Hinze phrased it, seemed to be a “hyped” up freshman who tended to do a lot of talking.
But as sports tend to do for the student-athletes who fully embrace what it can do from a personal standpoint, fences tend to be mended as teammates do battle with each other and learn about one another’s backgrounds.
And because Hinze and Keller chose to do that, they accomplished something that has never been done in the school’s history — appear in a state tennis tournament.
“Playing with Nate was really fun,” Keller said of his experience playing doubles tennis alongside Hinze. “He controls the net really well with his wingspan being so long. Every time I’d get a hard serve in, he’d just put the return volley away easily like a one-two knockout punch. He’s an amazing teammate and I wish that I could have another year to play alongside him. He’s a fun partner to have on and off of the court.”
Hinze echoes Keller’s sentiments.
“Gage is a great player,” Hinze said. “He’s been playing since first grade. He’s a great athlete, he works hard at what he does, and he has fun playing tennis.”
Before the pair came together as a doubles unit, however, they were actually locked together in some fierce battles at practice. Keller, actually, took the first pair of sets that the duo played before the more experienced Hinze countered by taking two sets of his own.
“Gage beat me in the first couple of sets, then I beat him the last couple of sets,” Hinze said. “We were head-to-head the whole time. We came in and just battled every day in practice.”
As Hinze and Keller continued to play each other, Keller, despite Hinze’s length and athleticism, continued to not back down from the challenge of playing the older hand. Mutual respect, and a friendship, soon formulated.
“We played all the time, and he just never gave up in any of the matches that we played against each other,” Hinze said. “As we played each other more and got to know each other, we became really close during the season. Then, whenever we started playing doubles together, we became closer and closer. He’s just like a little brother to me.”
After playing mainly on his own since his first-grade year in the sport, Keller, too, learned that he had people in the sport — such as Hinze, Hunter Armstrong, and others — that he could rely on for guidance.
“I’ve had a lot of experience in tennis before this year, so coming in, I had pretty high expectations,” Keller said. “When I started the season, it was really different than what I was used to. It used to be just me out there on the court, but now, I have teammates that I need to support and keep them up when they’re down. Even if I am still playing singles on the team, it’s not just me out there, if my teammates play, I’m going to boost them up a little bit. Being a team player is crucial to any team and you always have to keep your teammates up and confident. It’s essential.”
The leadership of the duo in all areas certainly showed throughout the year as Clay tore through its competition, winning 13 of its 16 matches and nine of its 11 conference affairs behind the play of Hinze and Keller, who won 28 games combined over the course of the year.
In that same stretch, the Panthers went undefeated against its SOC I brethren, and carried that success over into the SOC I Tournament, where Hinze racked up his third straight SOC I singles title and Player of the Year Award in the singles division while Keller and Armstrong combined to take home the SOC I doubles title en route to a clean sweep of the major conference trophies in SOC I play.
That, alone, would be enough for anybody to settle down and call it a year.
But as competitive as Hinze and Keller were, they wanted more.
With the Division II Southeast Sectional Tournament quickly approaching and with Hinze unsure if he wanted to play singles or doubles, the senior and his freshman teammate played a couple of doubles matches together after having closed out the regular season with three straight doubles wins. It would only take one practice match for Hinze to decide what area of the tournament he wanted to enter.
“Going into the sectional tournament, I wasn’t for sure if I wanted to go into singles or doubles, because the year before, I went into singles play,” Hinze said. “However, Gage and I played a couple of doubles matches in practice and everything, and after the first practice, I told (Bobby) Blanton, ‘I want to play with Gage in the sectional tournament.’ Coach put us in there, we got great position, great seeding, and everything.”
And so a magical run was officially set into motion.
With wins over Marietta, Miami Trace, Wheelersburg, and Logan Elm, Hinze and Keller advanced all the way to the sectional finals to earn a No. 2 overall seed in the Division II East/Southeast District Tournament at Ohio University. There, the pair continued their magic by rallying from a 5-2 deficit in the second set of a match between Mason Cline and Tyler Wise to win five straight games en route to a 6-4, 7-5 match win and then recovered from a loss to Logan Elm and a 6-2 loss to Miami Trace’s Seth Leach and Matt Fender to defeat the pair, 6-4, 6-3 en route to the third and final state playoff slot.
“I think that it was just previous chemistry between us,” Keller said of the thrilling run. “We were both good singles players during the season, and then, (Bobby Blanton) put us on a team together. We had to strategize and set each other up. However, we were able to coordinate a lot faster due to that chemistry. It also helps that we’re good friends, we never got mad at each other, and we were always supportive of one another. That, in my opinion, can make any team great. Coach Blanton always told us that we needed to talk and set each other up. He was a definite factor in how we got so far.”
While the pair eventually fell to Cincinnati Country Day’s Vishaal Nalagatla and Justin Baker, 6-0, 6-0, in the opening round of the Division II OHSAA State Tournament, just giving Nalagatla — who won his third straight doubles championship over the weekend to become only the third player in OHSAA history to do so — and Baker a fight was an excellent opportunity to have, in and of itself.
“We weren’t too upset about the loss whatsoever, especially competing with a team like Cincinnati Country Day,” Hinze said. “Vishaal Nalagatla and Justin Baker are great athletes and great players. We were just thrilled with the experience.”
However, the fact that Hinze and Keller came together for a greater purpose — regardless of the run that the pair made — is the greatest thing about it all.
“Our state appearance really showed me where I have to be, and because of that, I’ve just got to work harder and get to that point in order to make it to the same place again, and maybe one day, win the whole thing,” Keller said. “Losing Nate is definitely going to be rough because I loved playing with him. But I’m just going to keep training in order to get better, now that I’ve seen the skill level that I have to get to.”
“Gage and I became close throughout it all,” Hinze said. “He was a great person to look after and help, and we were fortunate to get as far as we did. I’ve already been talking to him about joining me at Shawnee so that we can play doubles again in the future.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @ColleyKevin7