CARY, N.C. – The roar didn’t so much drift across the Cary Tennis Park complex as it exploded, very plainly audible from more than three courts away. It wasn’t necessary, far from it actually, to know that something special was taking place in the NCAA Division III men’s tennis championships.

Kenyon and Washington (Mo.) were going up against each other in doubles team play, and there was one heck of a comeback in progress. Down 5-0, Kenyon battled back to go up 8-7. Washington was a No. 15 seed coming into the tournament, but had defeated No. 1 seed and defending team DIII champions Amherst just the day before. Washington tied it up 8-8, and then brothers Adam and Ross Putterman put it over the top with a tiebreaker victory.

Interactive Bracket
Printable Bracket
Houston: Emory duo gearing up for last hurrah

Over the sidelines, friends and teammates from both sides hung on every point. The hush of service was broken, and boisterously so, as the momentum of the match swung back and forth. These were young men being young men, and they were reacting to the excitement of an incredible tennis match unfolding before them.

It wasn’t just the guys of Washington and Kenyon, either. You want yelling, fist pumping and chest bumping? You’ve got it right here in Cary during men’s team play. In DIII, where there are no athletic scholarships, every player on site this week – man or woman – is playing for the love of tennis.

Several Washington students drove 15 hours just to be in Cary for the tournament, before flying out to their respective homes after the championships play out. That’s dedication. That’s DIII athletics.

“You’ve got a level playing field because you don’t have the scholarships,” said Washington men’s head coach Roger Follmer minutes after the conclusion of the match with Kenyon. “Guys truly play for the love of it, because there is no scholarship money involved.”

The women might not be quite as demonstrative, but don’t think for one split second that they’re not every bit as competitive. Heaven help you if you do. Amy Bryant, the head women’s tennis coach at Atlanta’s Emory University, wants her players to be as vocal as possible.

Emory's Malavika Padmanabhan

“We are loud, and we encourage that,” Bryant said. “I think the energy is key, especially in doubles. That’s huge. We foster that sense of energy. In doubles, you’re playing with a teammate. The points are fast. It’s only an eight-game pro set, so the match is fast.

“I think in doubles, having that energy, that camaraderie and that loudness can really help to keep you focused. It’s a little easier to hide a lack of focus in a long singles match, but in a doubles match, nothing goes unnoticed.”

Although there are no athletic scholarships in DIII, it’s a mistake to suggest to Bryant that her players get nothing in return for their efforts on the court other than an education.

“They actually get a lot for it,” Bryant corrected. “They get competition. They get the kind of traits employers are looking for in good job candidates. That’s exactly what they’re getting. This is much more than just a sport. This is a game of life. You get a ton for it, way more than a scholarship could give them.”

Wait. Bryant isn’t finished, she’s on a roll now. The passion embodied in a DIII athlete – tennis or otherwise – is exhibited in any number of ways.

“They make a choice to come out to practice five or six days a week, to train three or four hours a day,” she continued. “They make that choice, not because they have to but because they love it. The passion may be stronger here than it is in any other division, because they make that choice. They make that commitment, and they don’t have to. They’re not being paid to go to school. They want to be doing it. They want to be doing it more than anyone.”

Becky Cecere is the men’s and women’s tennis coach at Penn State Harrisburg, and serves on the NCAA’s DIII women’s tennis committee as well. Of the 440 or so DIII schools, about 80 percent are private. Many of DIII schools may not be nationally known, but they’re highly regarded academic institutions. For these student-athletes, that’s the attraction of playing on a smaller stage.

“They play for each other, and they play for their coaches and parents,” Cecere said. “To get to this [championship] level is really, really special. There’s a lot of kids who aren’t here. Tennis is a hard sport to learn. A lot of women have spent a lot of time and energy with their tennis, so this is where their reward is … and they get an excellent education, too.”