CARY, N.C. – Dillon Pottish knew what it felt like to lose in the NCAA Division III men’s tennis singles finals.
Pottish lost to Chris Goodwin, an Emory teammate, last year. They’re friends, they know each other well, but the fact remained that Goodwin had won and Pottish had lost. A junior at that point, Pottish had one more chance to claim the prized singles trophy. He was going to give it everything he had to make it happen.
The opportunity drove him. There was no quit in this young man, not even after he was taken to the hospital by ambulance with a full-body cramp on the second day of this year’s tournament. He came back to help Emory claim the men’s team championship, before turning his attention to a return to the singles finals.
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Again, he marched through the brackets to the title round, where he met Nick Ballou, a junior from California Lutheran who had also battled cramps earlier in the tournament. In a match that saw huge momentum shifts between the two, Pottish came out on top 6-2, 1-6, 6-2.
Game, set, match … Pottish. He had to wait a year, but the championship was his. One of the first onto the court to congratulate him was Goodwin.
“All year, I’ve been training,” said an exhausted Pottish after claiming his trophy. “I had so much motivation from last year, and losing in both the team and singles finals. I just knew this was my last year. [Friday] was my last match ever playing for Emory, so I had to give everything I had. I’m so happy I pulled it out.”
As well as Pottish played in the first set, Ballou was every bit as strong in the second. To some, it might have seemed that the prize was about to slip away from him for a second year in a row.
“I didn’t have much energy,” Pottish continued. “I decided to rest up and save my energy for the third, but I knew going into the third set I was going to give everything I had. I already, this tournament, got carried off by a stretcher.”
Tied at a set apiece, this was it. Pottish dug deep, the memory of 2011’s tournament still fresh.
“I just told myself, ‘I’m not losing,’” he said. “I just focused. I gave everything I had.”
It’s been a magical week for Emory. Having already won the men’s team championship, Pottish and Gabrielle Clark swept the men’s and women’s singles finals. Not only that, but Clark had but an hour or so to rest up for the women’s doubles semifinals. As Pottish battled through his championship match, the expression on the face of Emory men’s head coach John Browning rarely changed.
He wanted this one, for Pottish.
“Dillon used last year as fuel for this year,” Browning said. “That was his motivation to work harder. Instead of choosing to give up, he went to another level. This win today is just the fulfillment of all of his hard work coming together. He deserves it.”
The second set got Browning’s attention, as it did most everyone in the blue and gold of Emory. It had been a successful week for Emory, but it had also been a long and tiring one. Getting through the loss of the set with enough gas left in the tank for the third and final one made the difference, according to Browning.
“Being able to preserve his energy was really critical,” Browning said. “He went down 3-0 in the second set, and he realized it was going to be an uphill battle. Had he gone and put in 100 percent effort, he would’ve had nothing left in the third set.
“I was telling his parents it was kind of like the Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope, where he just kind of conserved his energy. But that’s a dangerous game to play. He’s lucky it worked out for him.”
In the long run, Browning concluded, the difference was Pottish’s singular focus on coming back with a vengeance from the disappointment of last year’s tournament.
“There were days and days of preparation on his part – hard work, countless hours on the court,” Browning said. “It was meant to be for him, a validation of all the hard work he’d put into it.”