PLYMOUTH — To think, one of Plymouth’s all-time best tennis players was nearly a soccer player instead.
Last Saturday, Pilgrims senior No. 1 Gabe Vervynckt became the school’s first LaPorte Regional qualifier in recent memory at the Culver Military Individual Sectional. His 7-5, 7-5 win over previously unbeaten North Judson foreign exchange student Thomas Simon earned him the right to advance and pushed him to a career record of 72-26 at Plymouth, a program record for singles wins.
But in the weeks before his freshman tennis season, Veryvnckt was leaning towards soccer instead.
Even though he’d played tennis since the age of five, Vervynckt was hoping to play soccer alongside older brother Todd — now a junior forward at Valparaiso University — in Todd’s senior year with the Rockies.
But up against a lineup of upperclassmen and a grueling conditioning regimen, Vervycnkt decided to stick with tennis instead.
“My freshman summer I didn’t know if I was going to play tennis,” he said. “I had gone to a couple of the soccer conditionings because I really wanted to play varsity soccer with my brother. It was his last year and everything, and soccer at that point was actually my favorite sport. But I knew I had the opportunity to have a lot more success in tennis.”
Whatever success Vervynckt may or may not have had in soccer, no one can deny his tennis accolades.
Nearly grabbing the top spot in the Pilgrims lineup as a mere sophomore, Vervynckt has so far earned a record of 18-4 in his final year with the team, pushing him to 41 wins in two seasons at No. 1. In addition to his LaPorte Regional qualification, he is also rated fifth in District 1 in the Indiana High School Tennis Coaches Association’s (IHSTeCA) polls, earning him at least an honorable mention spot on the association’s upcoming All-State list, and he recently became just the second Northern Lakes Conference No. 1 singles champion in Plymouth coach Michael Delp’s 15 years at the helm.
“Gabe has got to go up there as one of my all-time favorites as one of the kids that I’ve coached. I mean I love all my guys, but Gabe’s just about as workmanlike as you can be,” said Delp after Saturday’s win. “You don’t have to motivate him, you don’t have to mentally prepare him. You can talk strategy with him because you know he’s going to be focused every point, and you don’t have to do some of the things sometimes you have to do with some of the other players.
“He’s been the rock for four years now. Even as a freshman you could always count on him to give his absolute best. He’s had bad matches, but his bad is different than anyone else’s bad. He’s such a high-quality player and I’ve been blessed to have him as a player, I really have.”
While Delp designated him as Plymouth’s rock, most opposing coaches and players have described him as more of a wall.
Vervynckt plays an unusually defensive style for a No. 1 player, and he has an uncanny ability to make his opponents play his kind of game, where they ultimately lose patience or their temper — and points.
“Defense has always been my kind of game. Especially when I was a freshman that’s all I really did — keep the ball in play because that’s all I really had to do… just letting the other guy make a mistake. And I’ve carried that all the way to 1 singles because there are still guys that will make mistakes if you keep the ball in play,” said Vervynckt.
“Even in the sectional final match against the North Judson kid I just kept the ball in play, made him hit a couple extra shots, and he ended up making mistakes. So obviously it works enough to frustrate some people, and that’s how I’ve been getting the majority of my wins this year.”
But while defense has remained at the forefront of his game, Vervynckt has been adding a repertoire of offensive weapons, too.
Unlike most players who develop their forehand first, Vervycnkt — who is a left-handed batter in baseball — has always felt more comfortable with his backhand. He’s been steadily developing his forehand shot this year, but in the meantime his preference for the backhand shot, like his defensive style, has helped throw some opponents off their games.
“I’ve always struggled with my forehand,” he said. “My backhand was always my baseball swing and I batted left-handed so I always had more power on it. The last weekend I’ve been working a lot on my forehand because I know I’m going to have a lot tougher competition.”
“He’s definitely naturally more of a left-handed player,” said Delp. “I’ve had a lot of coaches that have stated that he’s kind of almost more of a lefty because his backhand is the side that he would rather get you in a rally, which against right-handed players is good. If he can get them into backhand rallies, that’s another formula for success for Gabe.”
This weekend, Vervynckt plays South Bend Riley’s Aaron Zaderej with the winner slated to advance to play Elkhart Memorial’s Mazin Hakim — whom Vervynckt has already beaten twice this season — for the LaPorte Regional singles championship and the right to advance to the state finals Friday, Oct. 19.
He’s already accomplished more than most, but it’s not yet time for the Pilgrims senior to sit back and reflect.
“I know how Gabe is, he’s very similar to me, and he doesn’t want to approach it that way,” said Delp. “He wants to stay very hungry. He has an opportunity to take it to a whole other level this weekend, and I know that’s the way Gabe will approach it and that’s the way he’s thinking about it. It is special what he’s already done, and it can definitely be even more special. It is something that he should be very proud of, but Gabe’s one of those kids that just doesn’t get satisfied.”