Coming up aces on, off court

Catonsville senior Matt McDaniel has won the past two county singles tennis titles, but he also is a standout student who does not define himself by athletic achievements.

May 24, 2006|By CLARE LOCHARY | CLARE LOCHARY,SUN REPORTER

When Catonsville senior Matt McDaniel was 3, his father brought him onto a tennis court for the first time. Jeff McDaniel would position stuffed animals on top of the net to teach his young son how to aim the ball.

It wasn't long before Matt outgrew the toys and showed a real knack for the sport. By the time he arrived at Catonsville, he'd developed into a dominating baseline player and earned the No. 1 singles spot as a freshman, a position he has kept for four years.

As a junior, he won both the county singles title and the regional championship. This year, he repeated as county champ and reached the semifinals of the regional tournament, losing a hard-fought three-set match to Pikesville's Paul Burgin. He also plays on the United States Tennis Association junior circuit, and was ranked 69th in the Mid-Atlantic region in the 2005 season.

McDaniel, 17, is more than just an accomplished tennis player, however. His parents have stressed that the sport should not be all-consuming, encouraging their son to also focus on school and other outside activities.

Heeding their advice, McDaniel took Advanced Placement courses this school year and was named Catonsville's Rotary Student of the Year. He is the editor of the school newspaper and the captain of the It's Academic team. For seven years, he taught Sunday school at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Libertytown.

"Matt plays at a very high level, and he could have been higher, but instead, he's well-rounded," said his father, Jeff McDaniel, the coach of the Catonsville tennis team and a former Division I player at UMBC. "Sunday school is more important than driving four hours to a [junior regional] tournament in Richmond."

Joe Mattingly, a tennis pro who has worked with Matt the past two years, understands the approach of Jeff and Carol McDaniel, a former UMBC track standout, to Matt's tennis career.

"Tennis is a part of his life, not his whole life," he said. "He could play more tournaments, more matches, but he is such a good student, his time is limited."

That's not to say that Matt isn't serious about tennis. He practices twice a day, once on his own and once with the Catonsville team.

Matt, who also played baseball and basketball growing up, said he prefers tennis because it is more of an individual sport.

"At the high school level, they sort of force it to be a team sport, but win or lose, you can't blame anyone but yourself," he said. "The competitiveness helps ... all or nothing."

Matt has a big forehand and a huge first serve that regularly tops 100 mph. The serve has improved markedly over his high school career, something Matt credits in large part to Warren Como, a Catonsville gym teacher who got him started on a weight training program.

"When he was a freshman and sophomore, I had players with a power advantage, but he's grown and now he has the advantage," Pikesville coach Jerry Dresner said.

A five-inch growth spurt to his current height of 6 feet 2 also gave Matt an edge, especially as his mental strategy grew in tandem with his physical prowess.

To help him with strategy, the McDaniel family turned to Mattingly, who works with Matt on "what he should be thinking about on the tennis court. When he zeros in and does focus, he's at a whole other level."

More than any technical aspect of his game, Matt considers his grace under pressure as his greatest strength as a player.

"I keep a cool head," he said, adding that he tries to emulate the poise of players such as Bjorn Borg and Roger Federer. "Those guys, if you're watching them, you can't tell who's winning or losing."

Opponents agree that his tremendous control is an asset. "He's very consistent and very focused on the court and difficult to rattle," Hereford coach Mark Trotta said.

Matt's calm demeanor should not be confused with a lack of desire and intensity, however. He knows what to do when his opponent gives him an opening.

"He's good at sensing a weakness and honing in," Jeff McDaniel said.

Next fall, Matt will be honing in on his studies and tennis at Loyola College, where he will have a combination academic and athletic scholarship.

He plans to major in political science, and already has some hands-on experience as a campaign volunteer for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2002 campaign and President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. He is also president of the Catonsville High School Young Republicans Club.

His next coach, Loyola's Rick McClure, is eager to make Matt a key part of the Greyhounds' squad.

"He's the kind of student-athlete, that after 27 years of coaching, I feel will come in and contribute as much to the school as to the team."

clare.lochary@baltsun.com

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