After 36 seasons of coaching high school tennis, John Myers finally can rest easy. The man charged with leading Jefferson High’s talented corps had suffered through years of coming up just short at the state level, winning three region titles in five seasons with Jefferson but never able to break through on the big stage.
The Colonials’ 2013 campaign finally got him over the hump. And this time, it wasn’t even close.
Myers’s boys completed their perfect 21-0 season June 1 in Newport News, where they captured the program’s first state championship. It was a fitting conclusion for a squad that recorded 11 shutouts this spring and beat one of Langley’s strongest teams in recent memory on four separate occasions, including a 5-3 decision in the state final.
Yet the winning didn’t stop there. Last Saturday, Chris Vrabel and Kevin Wan teamed up to secure the school’s first doubles title with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) victory against Cosby High’s Brett Moorhead and Dillon Sykes at Burke Racquet and Swim Club.
“It’s definitely a great thing to be able to win it for our school,” Vrabel said. “Our school doesn’t win too many state team championships. And I’m glad we won it for coach my senior year because he’s come so close my other years, but he finally got it.”
The only reason Vrabel didn’t give Myers a trifecta was because he wasn’t eligible to compete for the state singles title. Weeks earlier, rain had pushed the Liberty District singles final to a date on which Vrabel would be out of town competing in a USTA tournament. When he coasted to the final, he wasn’t able to show up, thus defaulting the match to McLean senior Nik Padmanabhan. Per Northern Region tennis rules, defaulting a final automatically prevents entry into the next tournament.
At the end of the day, that setback hardly detracted from the season enjoyed by Vrabel and his teammates. The Colonials’ top six players cruised to a final record of 155-16. That feat surprised everyone, especially given that the perennially dominant Liberty District came into the spring with loaded lineups at McLean and Langley.
“It was definitely surprising because the other years, even though we had strong teams, we still struggled with playing Langley in 5-4 matches during the season,” Vrabel said. “But this year in our regular season matches we beat them 8-1 I think twice. I guess I had to tell the guys before we went down to states to not take it for granted and just to keep focusing because you never know what will happen.”
After breezing to district and regional titles, the Colonials entered states with a cautious mindset, unsure of what to expect at the stage that had foiled them in years past. But this time there would be no Deep Run, the Central Region powerhouse that had eliminated Jefferson at states in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
With the three-time defending state champions out of the picture, Jefferson breezed to a 5-0 win against Freedom in the quarterfinals, a 5-1 win against Midlothian in the semifinals and a 5-3 win against Langley in the finals.
Myers doesn’t claim much credit for the accomplishment, accepting a responsibility that involves more motivating his troops than coaching fundamentals.
“My role basically is just to make sure they don’t take it for granted,” Myers said. “A lot of times in the past, to our detriment, we’ve gone in there and haven’t played as well as we’re capable of playing. That’s basically my job is to focus these guys on the fact that nobody is going to give it to you. You’ve got to go out and take it.”
The man doing much of the real grunt work this year was Vrabel, the Colonials’ steady senior who finished the season undefeated in singles and doubles play at the No. 1 spot. A stalwart on the USTA circuit, Vrabel decided to focus the bulk of his play this spring on high school tennis, a decision that ultimately etched his school’s name, not to mention his own, in the record books.
Rated the No. 18 recruit in the country by Tennis Recruiting Network, Vrabel committed to Cornell last October and established himself as the most coveted recruit heading to an Ivy League school this fall. After garnering interest from schools such as Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Virginia and Northwestern, Vrabel chose Cornell mainly based on its engineering ranking and the strength of its tennis team.
Still, Vrabel is a blue chip recruit only when he’s smashing balls on a tennis court. Off the court, he’s just a humble kid whose even-keeled demeanor puts everyone around him at ease.
“It’s not just that he bonds with the top players,” Myers said. “I’ve got 25 guys on the team, and all up and down the lineup with some of the upperclassmen, he’s really good friends with [them]. They kid around and joke around a lot, and that’s one of the things that makes all high school sports fun is the camaraderie and the team bonding. These are the things that you remember for the rest of your life.”
Vrabel and sophomore Kevin Wan were able to execute their game plan in their final match together last weekend, using strong serves and baseline rallies to out-duel Moorhead — the defending state singles champion — and Sykes. Wan, recalling the team’s proposed goal of winning states when they learned of Vrabel’s return earlier this year, wanted his playing partner to go out the right way.
“This was our last match with Chris,” Wan said. “We really wanted to win it for him because this is his last match of his senior year. He did so much for our team. Whenever he played he would always win first and boost our morale a lot, so we wanted to win one for him.”
Even with Vrabel gone next year, the Colonials will be ready to contend again. Ten of their 25 players this season were freshmen, including district doubles champions Mark Prettyman and Nikhil Ramachandran.
“We’re looking to repeat as state champions next year,” Wan said. “I think our future looks pretty good.”