Sept. 7, 2012
By Pete LaFleur
Attendance at college reunions typically is spotty. Some have no desire to attend, others entrenched in workplace or family duties. Reunions with 30 percent attendance likely are a success - above 50 percent, generally unheard of.
Notre Dame men's tennis holds its annual reunion this weekend, coinciding with a 20-year anniversary celebration for the record-setting 1991-1992 team - the first double-digit seed (10th) and first northern team ever to reach the NCAA team final.
Nobody is missing this 1992 "mini-reunion" - with 100 percent attendance from nearly 20 former players/coaches. It's hard to tell what's more impressive: the accomplishments of that team, or their lifelong bonds of friendship.
"We outperformed our talent because of our strength as a team," says Andy Zurcher, an emerging junior standout in 1992. "We genuinely cared for and believed in each other. That has only grown stronger."
Notre Dame made its debut in the NCAA team format a year earlier and returned all six singles players - led by ace David DiLucia and tremendous doubles talent. The 1992 NCAA squad rattled off "the greatest string of upsets" in tournament history: beating 7-seed Mississippi State (5-3), then homestanding 3-seed Georgia (5-4) before echoes from a gridiron rivalry versus top seed USC (5-1). Despite losing the final to Stanford (the Cardinal's 10th title in 16 years), Notre Dame was the talk of college tennis, after battling the sport's three powerhouses (Georgia, USC, Stanford).
Factors often cited for that special season include: Bayliss and his unique combination of coaching qualities; DiLucia's arrival in 1988-89, followed by four years of singles/doubles dominance; and the special bond between the rare six-member junior class, who combined with DiLucia to comprise the regular lineup.
After coaching 18 total seasons at Navy and MIT, Bayliss inherited a well-established program with only two losing seasons in 31 years under legendary Tom Fallon. The current Irish coach admits he benefitted greatly from the addition of scholarships and completion of the $1.5-million Eck Tennis Pavilion.
Bayliss exhibited a fundamental concern for player well-being, a connection that continued in their postgrad lives. Ryan Wenger ('91) cited the words of writer John Maxwell in describing his college coach: "No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care."
Irish players received plenty of care and knowledge from Bayliss, a "fierce competitor who commanded respect and never lost composure," says Wenger. Bayliss motivated individual players in specific ways, and his calculated practices were legendary.
Notre Dame practices were intensely focused on preparation and situational drills - counterbalancing the daunting competition schedule. The design was to develop repetition that would translate into confidence during matches.
"Pressure Bobby put on the team in practices was way more than they experienced in matches - those were fun," says former Notre Dame player and assistant Brian Kalbas, who credits Bayliss for laying the foundation of his own successful 21 years as a head coach, with the William & Mary and now North Carolina women's teams.
DiLucia's story merited plenty of publicity. The short version: he twice took "the path less travelled," first in steering towards college instead of an immediate pro career, and secondly by signing with Notre Dame in a sport dominated by sunbelt schools.
With an offer to train at the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Academy - alongside the likes of Andre Agassi and Jim Courier - the 16-year-old DiLucia instead opted to finish his high school years at home. When it came time to ink his letter-of-intent, the Philadelphia-area native signed with Notre Dame.
"People said it was a big mistake to go to Notre Dame, but I wanted to take that chance," said DiLucia, who had a connection to Brian and brother Tim Kalbas, through Pennsylvania youth tennis.
"I was drawn to the genuinely nice, caring people at Notre Dame and grew very close to my teammates. I really enjoyed the team aspect. Brian Kalbas is like an older brother, coach Bayliss a second father."
The day after he was hired, Bayliss visited DiLucia to begin recruiting the elite player.
"It shocked the tennis establishment when David came here - people didn't even know we had an indoor facility," says Bayliss, who likened DiLucia's all-court, attacking style to former Swedish star Stefan Edberg, balanced with on-court temperament similar to Pete Sampras.
DiLucia - who nearly beat Agassi in a 1988 challenge and upset former Wimbledon finalist Kevin Curren as an amateur entry in the 1992 Pro Indoors - was the top-ranked college singles player in 1992 (21-0 in dual meets, before final loss) while combining with Chuck Coleman to earn the top doubles ranking.
Notre Dame's first four-time team MVP in any sport, DiLucia became a campus celebrity, twice earning "most outstanding male student-athlete" from The Observer student newspaper (above numerous football and basketball stars).
"David had a slight build [5-10, 150], but showing up with him at the top of your lineup was like walking into a bar with a 250-pound Marine - you got to sit wherever you wanted," says Bayliss, who earned 1992 national coach of the year and led Notre Dame's successful bid to host the 1994 NCAAs.
DiLucia put Notre Dame tennis on the map and the program gained a foothold with top players. Bayliss and Kalbas focused on recruiting good character and competitive spirit ... it certainly didn't hurt if they played at a high level. Nine top-100 players soon followed DiLucia's lead, and home crowds swelled over the 1,200 capacity.
Notre Dame's 1992 junior class included a half-dozen key contributors:
Coleman (Lake Wylie, S.C.; now Indianapolis-based lawyer) was a master returner of serve (#3 singles, #1 doubles)
Zurcher (back in his native Colorado; one of the first members of highly-successful MagicService.com) was a walk-on and ROTC, parlaying raw athleticism into a scholarship, All-America and Academic All-America (#2 singles, #2 doubles)
Lefthander Will Forsyth (in home state Oregon; real-estate management general counsel) joined Notre Dame after Trinity downscaled to D-III status (#4 singles, #2 doubles)
Atlanta native Mark Schmidt (works for "big four" accounting firm) played #5 singles while rotating into #3 doubles, alongside classmates Ron Rosas (#6 singles; real-estate financier in native Texas) and Chris Wojtalik, financial consultant who has raised, along with his wife, their own tennis team of eight children (lives a few houses away from Coleman and his family)
"That class set the tone for a culture of tennis excellence," says Todd Wilson, a '92 sophomore who did not crack the rotation but later earned All-America honors.
"They taught younger players about looking out for the team's and each other's best interests, while reinforcing the Notre Dame way: teamwork, integrity and hard work."
The NCAA win over Mississippi State extended to doubles under the lights, after wins from DiLucia (vs. #8 Daniel Courcol), Forsyth and Rosas, before Schmidt/Wojtalik and Forsyth/Zurcher made quick work of their doubles opponents. Bayliss predicted that strong play from #2 and #3 doubles would give his team "more confidence, up and down the lineup."
The Irish were going to need every bit of mojo they could muster in the muggy Sunday showdown against Georgia and its rabid fanbase, nearly 5,000 strong. Notre Dame did its best to block out the Bulldogs fans (yes, they literally "barked" at opposing players). On a day when his class graduated, DiLucia beat #6 Wade McGuire, but the other singles were three-set thrillers.
Schmidt - who had been sidelined with a nagging ankle injury - won, as did Forsyth and Rosas in comeback fashion. Georgia squared the quarterfinal (4-4) in doubles, with straight-set wins at #1 (Coleman's hamstring pull made him a late scratch) and #3. It came down to #2 doubles and the first two sets spilled into tiebreakers, with Forsyth and Zurcher winning both.
"We showed courage in the face of adversity and a competitive atmosphere," said an exhausted Bayliss afterward. "I needed to sit down, watch quietly, let my heart stop racing - the noise was overpowering."
Georgia was the highest-ranked opponent ever defeated by Notre Dame tennis, until the next day. "After that grueling battle with Georgia, warming up for USC felt like a scrimmage," joked Bayliss. "And Georgia's fans rooted for us - they hated USC."
Many predicted a letdown, but the Irish rode the momentum with an all-out effort and plenty of hustle for the greatest upset in the tournament's history.
"That USC team was loaded. It was like the USSR hockey team losing to the USA in 1980," says Forsyth. "We played the best matches of our lives. It was `the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' personified in a team."
Rosas won 6-1, 6-1 vs. Phil Whitesell, before 61st-ranked Zurcher dispatched #65 David Ekerot 6-2, 6-2. Coleman then delivered a huge win (6-3, 3-6, 6-3) vs. 42nd-ranked Jon Leach, son of the USC coach and brother to Davis Cup star Rick Leach. Coleman's hamstring was tightening, so Bayliss urged more aggressive shotmaking for shorter rallies.
"What helped me was looking to the other court to see Will come back in his match," recalled Coleman. "That got me going."
A second loss in singles would have required doubles ... and USC had swept the Irish in doubles the previous fall. Forsyth split his first two sets vs. 50th-ranked Wayne Black, the nation's best #4 singles player (25-0). Doubles appeared imminent, with Black leading 4-1 - but Forsyth shockingly rattled off five straight games, against an opponent who later reached #1 in ATP doubles.
All eyes shifted to DiLucia's court, where he had started 7-5, 4-6 battling 5th-ranked Brian MacPhie. A key service break came in the sixth game, and DeLucia completed the team's historic upset with an ace in the ninth (6-3).
It's no coincidence that DiLucia's team success never translated to NCAA individual-based matches. "David put all mental efforts into the team doing well. He rarely lost when scoring for the team," says Kalbas. "He focused on dual-meet success to take pressure off his teammates."
After the loss to Stanford, DiLucia tried to reflect on a week that had "been a blur."
"We set our goals on the final four and knew if we all played well, it could be scary," said DiLucia, currently instructing top youth players and working with the values-based CITRS teaching and learning center.
"When it all sinks in, we will remember a great year with a lot of pride."
Two decades later, that pride still is there, and so are the friendships. This weekend's 100-percent reunion turnout is testament to that.