CARY, N.C. – Emory head coach John Browning found himself in a strange predicament as last season’s NCAA Division III singles tournament wound down.
For any coach, it’s a nice notch in the racket for one player to reach the finale. That’s one thing, but not only did Emory’s Dillon Pottish make it through to the championship, so did Emory’s Chris Goodwin. Teammates, facing each other for all the marbles. What was Browning to do?
One after one, the coach who had already spent more than a decade at Emory received the congratulations and well wishes of his peers. Surely, he was on top of the world in Division III men’s tennis. Right? Maybe. Maybe not. How could he possibly root for one of his players over the other, much less coach? It was a situation that struck Browning deeply.
“Of course, you’re happy and proud you’re representing Emory with two players in the finals, but it was an excruciating situation,” Browning admitted. “I love them both dearly. I wanted both of them to win and I knew one guy was going to walk away feeling a severe amount of pain. You don’t want a kid to feel those negative feelings. It wasn’t a win-win situation. It was a win-lose situation, and the loser was going to walk away with just pain.”
Pottish transferred to Emory from Portland, a Division I school, as a sophomore. After arriving in Atlanta, the native of East Quogue, N.Y. seemed reserved to his coach. So was Goodwin, who hails from Rockville, Md. The two players won the ITA South Atlantic Regional doubles championship as sophomores, before advancing to the 2010 ITA Small College Championships.
“They’re both really quiet kids, but Chris is definitely much more gregarious,” Browning began. “He likes to go out a little more, and Dillon’s a pretty serious kid. I think it’s interesting over the course of three years, Dillon has really lightened up a lot. Part of that is Chris. I think they counterbalance each other really well. Their relationship has really grown. It’s not something where they’re hanging out every night, but it’s just a really quiet, deep respect they have for one another.”
Michael Goodwin, Chris’ older brother, won the Division III single’s championship for Emory. Chris advanced all the way to the 2010 title match, but came up short in his bid to match his sibling’s accomplishment. He would get another chance in 2011, in the most unlikely of circumstances.
“It’s so hard to get to the finals, I really didn’t think it was going to happen,” Browning said of the all-Emory singles final. “Dillon had a much easier path to the finals than Chris. When Chris loses a team event, it’s always a struggle to get him motivated to play in the singles event. Both the guys are very team oriented, but all Chris cares about the team event. When he gets to the singles event, he can take it or leave it. The early singles rounds are always dangerous for Chris.”
In theory, it’s always possible for teammates to face each other for a singles championship. But as it became more and more of a reality, both Pottish and Goodwin were resigned to what was about to take place.
“I had to control what I could control,” Pottish said. “I knew if I played my game, it didn’t matter who I played that I should be OK.”
“I was not looking forward to it,” Goodwin added. “I would’ve rather played anyone else than him. I don’t like playing my teammates in tournaments because you don’t really want to kill them like you do other teams.”
Goodwin bested Pottish in the championship match 6-2, 7-6. After taking the win, Goodwin could not … he would not … celebrate a feat that had eluded him just the year before.
“It was extremely painful,” Browning said. “I remember going into his room with his parents, and it was like somebody had just died. Chris, this is how good a relationship they have. He didn’t want to celebrate in front of them. He was concerned about how Dillon was feeling. Was he OK? Of course, he was happy, but he’s also a very sensitive kid. He loves Dillon, so he understood what Dillon was going through.”
As much as he had wanted to win for himself, his school and to match his brother, Goodwin knew that he had to rein in his emotions after the victory.
“Of course I was happy I won, but I didn’t want to make a big scene out there on the court in front of him,” Goodwin concluded, who has battled a partially torn hip flexor and then some severe shoulder issues this year. “If it would have been anyone else, I would’ve definitely celebrated more.”
Goodwin and Pottish are seniors, and Browning dreads the very thought of losing them. Goodwin holds the Emory record for all-time number of wins, while Pottish has the highest winning percentage at the No. 1 singles position. Asked how hard it will be to replace them, the coach gives a heartfelt, one-word reply.
Collecting his thoughts, Browning had one more thought on the departing seniors.
“They’re really great kids,” he said. “With players who play at the DI level, you sometimes encounter some arrogance. There isn’t a stitch in either of these two kids. They’re incredibly humble, and wonderful team players. More importantly, they’ve been unbelievable representatives for Emory.”