Four plus four equals a miners dynasty
Nick Perez, Nick VonDerAhe, Matt Kunkel and David Marsh all seem harmless when you meet them. The kind of sweet boys that might go grocery shopping for their grandmothers.
And they are nice most of the time just don’t challenge them to a tennis match.
This fearsome foursome represents a little piece of Utah prep athletic history. The Park City High School seniors made headlines in May after earning their fourth straight team and individual titles at the Utah High School 3A State Tennis Championships in St. George a first-time accomplishment. Perez, VonDerAhe and Kunkel are singles players and Marsh plays No. 1 doubles.
"We knew we would be competitive all four years and we all knew we could have the opportunity to do this," said VonDerAhe, who served as the team captain this past season.
Opportunity indeed. The team has collectively lost one match all four years, and the three singles players are undefeated in high school competition.
"It was nice after I won," Perez said. "When you win that last point, it’s nice to say, ‘I did it.’"
According to Miners head tennis coach Warren Pretorius, the accomplishment was a perfect ending for one his most storied squads ever.
"It was their last high school match, their last time playing with these guys," Pretorius said. "It would have been disappointing to not win the final title."
Still, they mange to stay grounded and humble. VonDerAhe attributes much of their success to hard work and training and the younger team members pushing them to continue to improve.
They also play individually as juniors on the United States Tennis Association (USTA) circuit, which gives them regional and national competition to keep their skills sharp.
At one point during their high school careers, there were one or two players from other schools that might have been able to challenge them, but as luck would have it, they were never matched up with them, and this year they were clearly the players to beat.
"We lucked out," Perez said.
The accomplishment also earns them bragging rights. Often toiling in infamy on the USTA junior circuit, a state title gives the group something that all of their peers can understand. It also gives them a sense of accomplishment they can look back on fondly.
"It’s always nice to look back and say you’ve dome something," Perez said. "We have that trophy to look at."
All four of the boys began coming to the Racquet Club around fifth grade. They had all been playing tennis previously, but it took a few years of various moves and interest changes before fate brought them together. When they entered high school they began to seriously focus on the sport.
"Warren runs an awesome program," VonDerAhe said. "There are just so many players. Our high school team is so good, because we have so many guys."
VonDerAhe said that he was drawn to the Park City Racquet Club — the Miners home court and the facility which Pretorius oversaw for the last decade — because it was so accessible to everyone.
"Not a lot of places have a great public facility," VonDerAhe said. "The pros make you want to come back. It builds more than a tennis future, but a total relationship with the community."
Pretorius says the admiration is mutual. He says that the more the team plays well in high school and USTA tournaments, the more other boys want to get involved and be successful.
VonDerAhe explains that often top tennis players will not play for their high school team, because they are not successful, but the Miners’ dynasty attracts players.
Other programs may only have one top-ranked player with no other guys to push him to become better.
The other secret to the boys’ success is their parents. All three talk at length of the financial and time sacrifices their parents make to further their competitive careers. All of their parents are not tennis enthusiasts, but they all made sure the boys had the support necessary to succeed.
"It’s cool to have parents that care for you and want the best for you," Kunkel said.
Playing for the high school team was not without sacrifices. The boys often missed key individual tournaments to play high school matches, but they all felt it was worth it.
"There’s not many guys that can say they were high school state champions," Perez said.
VonDerAhe said the balancing of team and individual tennis as well as schoolwork has helped him to become more organized. He learned early on to get his homework finished before high school practice started and was slated to graduate with honors on Friday.
"It would force me to do my homework," VonDerAhe said. "It kept me focused."
Marsh also said it kept him healthy and out of trouble.
"It’s good exercise and it keeps you busy," Marsh said.
All of the young men say that they will miss Pretorius and each other as they move on with their lives. They also said that they would miss all the other people at the club, staff members and various assistant pros, that made their success possible.
Pretorius will definitely miss his star seniors as well. He said their commitment to making the entire team feel welcome and valued was priceless.
"I’m going to miss every part. I’ve known these guys since they were little," Pretorius said.
Pretorius says that his relationship with seniors became almost like that of father and sons. He plans to stay in contact with all of them in the future.
The boys say that they are both competitive and encouraging at the same time. The top three have fairly evenly matched skills, so they are always looking to outplay the others.
"We root for each other and encourage each other," Perez said. "In tournaments, I want to beat you, but then we leave it all on the court."
"We’re evenly matched, so we always need to work harder," Kunkel said. "We really improve each other."
The top three will be competing this summer in the USTA Summer sectional in Boise with the hopes of moving onto the national competition in Michigan. If they win there they could actually win a berth at the U.S. Open.
"It’s really important," Perez said.
In the fall, most of the boys will take their talent to the next level. Kunkel is headed to play at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and the two Nicks will join each other on the courts of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in California. They will all have roster spots on the team and hope to earn scholarships by their junior year. (Marsh, an aviation enthusiast, will be attending Westminster College’s flight program. He also hopes to start coaching tennis in Salt Lake.)
"For us three, it was our biggest goal to play college tennis," VonDerAhe said.
They also found that their team experience made them more attractive to prospective college coaches.
"In tennis, it’s totally individual usually," VonDerAhe explained. "It’s kind of neat to have guys cheering you on and a head coach working with you."
Pretorius says that the coaches will also be pleasantly surprised by the young men’s commitment to team leadership and unity, academic discipline and potential to improve.
VonDerAhe said he focused on Loyola Marymount early on and convinced Perez to consider the school and team as well. Perez, a Florida native had his sights set on an East Coast school, but his sister attended LMU, and he soon allowed VonDerAhe to sell the school to him.
Kunkel, who was considering both UNLV and BYU earlier this spring soon picked the Nevada school because of the connection he felt with the coach. UNLV Rebels head coach Owen Hambrook, a friend of Pretorius’ from their native home of South Africa, instantly made Kunkel feel comfortable and convinced him that he would fit well in the Rebels’ system.
Both schools play strong schedules and in good conferences. They will face powerhouses like Pepperdine, Utah and Stanford and will see some of the better collegiate competition in the country.
"Half of our schedule is against top 50 schools," Perez said. "No doubt it makes you better."
They are also both younger programs, and Pretorius is excited to see the programs grow with them.
"They are playing Division I tennis that’s as tough as it gets," Pretorius said. "Their best tennis is yet to come."
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Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson has decried what she called a lenient sentence in a child sex abuse case in which a 20-year-old reportedly attempted to impregnate a 12-year-old. The perpetrator was sentenced to 20 days in jail and 10 years of probation.