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West boys making name for themselves on tennis court

Published April 17 at 7:37 p.m. | Last updated April 18 at 7:16 a.m.

Derek Drew’s first singles match as a West freshman ended with a bad loss to Heights’ Saif Khan, a three-time City League boys tennis champion.

“I wasn’t ready to quit tennis, but I was pretty discouraged,” said Drew, now a senior. “The day after, coach (Tom Wilcox) talked to us because the rest of the team didn’t do too well, either, and we played for about three hours after that. We kept trying to do our best.”

Wilcox has been an inspiration at West, as he has taken the tennis program from nothing and built it into one that is eyeing a third straight finish in the City League’s top four.

And he’s doing it with athletes who are willing to put in the necessary extra work.

The Pioneers are 4-2 in City League matches, with the losses 5-4 to Northwest and 6-3 to Carroll. They were 5-3 in 2012 and 2013.

To understand how impressive West’s improvement is, consider the Pioneers’ tennis history.

• West was 0-8 in 2010 and 2011.

• In a span of 15 years through 2011, West won four City League matches and had 11 winless seasons.

• West has had 21 winless City League seasons dating back to 1979.

Building a program from nothing is no easy task, especially in a sport such as tennis, which is largely played by those with the financial means to have private lessons.

The West players often look at other teams’ players and guess whether they’ve played tennis their whole lives, with private coaches.

“All we can say is we picked up our racket (and) started getting better every day. It’s all it takes,” Drew said.

Drew is the rare West player who had previous tennis experience. Most have picked up the game in high school.

“Some of these kids don’t know the scoring,” Wilcox said. “Their only experience with tennis is Wii tennis.”

But Wilcox has found players willing to work to improve.

“Tennis is hard when you start off, but Tom is really encouraging,” West athletic director Phil Daignault said. “… He’s trying to get these kids that may be wanting to find something that they can do. They’ve got some athleticism and they’re channeling it in tennis.”

Senior Hakeem Thomas is notorious for texting teammates to see if they want to play on weekends. Even after duals, the Pioneers often return to West to play another few hours.

What drives Thomas is West’s 0-8 City League record in 2011.

“That was my worst sports record of all sports I played ever,” he said. “I knew if we put in a lot more work, we won’t lose like that.

“… Schools would come in and think we were a joke, they’d think (we were) so bad we couldn’t even compete with their (junior varsity). What they didn’t realize is we’ve been working so hard. That our fight in us has made us better.”

West’s improvement has not gone unnoticed.

After Carroll beat West on March 31, Carroll coach Darren Huslig talked to Wilcox about the Pioneers.

“In the past it was always a 9-0 match,” Huslig said. “(Wilcox has) them at 6-3. I made the comment that, ‘You’ve done a great job with the program.’

“It’s something I’ve noticed.”

West now has enough players for a JV team.

Wilcox, who has a calm demeanor and loves to encourage, has been the Pioneers’ coach since 2010. He has recruited players in the halls of West, recruited the students in his classes and put up posters throughout the school encouraging students to join.

“Coach wants us to practice more than we do,” Thomas said. “He comes to pick me up from my house when we go to practice. He’s not only picking me up, he’s giving me insight on what to do, where to go, strategizing on the court.”

The 24 athletes who came out this season are the most in Wilcox’s tenure.

He understands that not all of his players can afford rackets, so he found a company to donate graphite rackets.

And the Pioneers play and play and play.

“I’ve had some parents call me and really thank me, saying, ‘I’m afraid my son would have been in a gang without tennis,’ ” Wilcox said. “It’s a little exhausting at times, but it’s rewarding.”

Winning has also helped West, and Drew has been a major contributor.

He’s 12-1 this season and unbeaten in City League matches. Thomas is 8-5, with one loss in City League doubles. Senior Kumar Bhakta is 10-3, with one loss in league doubles.

Drew qualified for the 2013 Class 5A tournament. Many of his teammates went to watch, including Thomas.

Thomas wanted to get out there and play, too. His plan is to be out there himself this season.

“West High is going to have more people qualify for state,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal this season. It’s not about the record. State is our ultmate goal. We want to leave West High on a high, and that would be the ultimate high.”

Reach Joanna Chadwick at 316-268-6270 or jchadwick@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachadwick.