It was a season like no other for the Hamilton West boys’ tennis team and head coach Jim Ditmars.
The highly respected Ditmars took over the program in 1998 and, for the first time in school history, West qualified for the NJSIAA Tournament as a team. Hamilton was 5-14 overall but had a 4-5 record at the cutoff, good enough to qualify for Central Jersey Group III as the 10th seed.
“It meant a lot to me to make states,” said Brian Zarzecki, who plays second doubles with fellow-junior Matt Esposito. “After a rocky (1-14) season last year, it was a pleasant surprise. Being the first Hamilton West tennis team to make it is extra special. This is the best tennis team that West has ever had. The only regret I have is not moving on in states.”
Hamilton lost 5-0 to seventh-seeded Somerville, but Ditmars felt the team accorded itself well.
“They really, really took it to heart that they were in the state tournament legitimately, not with a poor record at the time of the cutoff,” Ditmars said. “They were thrilled to go, and when they got there they handled it with great respect and dignity.
“There was no fooling around. They played their heart out. We didn’t win it, but made a very good showing. We were not embarrassed. We proved we belonged there.”
Senior Erik Wiener, who deserved a nice ending to his high school athletic career after suffering through some dismal seasons in soccer and tennis, embraced the opportunity.
“Making states this year was awesome,” he said. “It was a great experience that all athletes should get a chance to experience. Although we lost, it was great for us seniors to get to experience a state match and is a big step for the tennis team going forward.”
Hamilton Township in general has fallen on hard times when it comes to high school tennis, as the courts at Veterans Park are not nearly as filled with youth players as they were in the 1970s and ’80s. Ditmars tries to promote the sport as much as possible working as a supervisor with the New Jersey Tennis League in Trenton each summer.
He hopes his work there, along with this year’s Hornets’ success, can help bring in better players.
“We’re trying to get kids who don’t play tennis to be involved in the game,” the coach said. “Word of mouth also travels. Zarzecki’s partner (Esposito) was going to play baseball but couldn’t play. Brian told him to play tennis, it’s a great sport, and he would have a great time, and they did very well. That kind of thing spreads through the school.”
Aside from reaching states, this year’s squad also had its finest showing at the Mercer County Tournament, as Zarzecki-Esposito reached the back draw portion of the tournament.
“Matt and I are great friends, and I knew that a doubles team composed of us two would pay dividends,” Zarzecki said.
“Making it back to the second day was a lot of fun, mostly because I got to miss another day of school, but the tennis was fun to watch, too,” he added with a laugh. “It really was a wonderful experience. We got to watch some amazing tennis being played by kids our age. I’m looking forward to doing it again next year.”
Also at the MCT, singles players Ricardo Cruz, Noah Rusnak and Wiener reached the main portion of the event along with first doubles Evan Morris-Zubaher Shams.
Aside from Zarzecki and Esposito, the other starters are all seniors who came to the team with limited, if any, tennis experience, but strived to make themselves better.
“This team has progressed a whole lot from three years ago,” Zarzecki said. “My freshman year was the first year for most of our varsity team. None of us had really played competitively, just for sport. That is one of the main reasons why it took a while for us to really be competitive against other schools.
“Even last year, the team looked very solid. Of our starting line-up this year, only two weren’t a part of it my sophomore year. The additions of Matt and the return of Ricardo really helped out this year and our team was very solid from top to bottom.”
Wiener joined the squad as a sophomore, when everyone was pretty much at the same skill and experience level.
“As freshmen and sophomores, we all wanted to learn the sport and were willing to do what we had to in order to improve,” Wiener said. “The key to the steps we made over the years was that we continued to practice during the off-season when we had time. We all grew to enjoy tennis and always wanted to improve.”
Wiener was named the team’s Most Valuable Player while Morris was the Most Improved Player. And while he didn’t win an award, Rusnak won Ditmar’s praise.
“He didn’t have a great record,” the coach said. “But he worked his butt off for four years. He came to the summer program, and he would come out every single day at NJTL. He developed into a good tennis player.”
Zarzecki and Wiener both felt that the fact the team stayed together through the tough times made the bond that much closer, and provided the players with necessary experience to compete at a higher level this year. There were also the intangibles.
“I think the fact that none of us really see losing a tennis match as the biggest deal in the world is the main contributor to our progress as a team,” Zarzecki said. “We all simply love the sport.
“Our attitude toward matches is that they are more to have fun. I’ve found that when you are having fun you play a whole lot better, so not dropping our heads at all contributed greatly.”
“The best trait we had this year had to be our heart and our never-quit attitude,” Wiener said. “This was shown best when we played Burlington Township and we were already down 2-0 and our remaining three matches were in the third set.”
The result? Both doubles teams won, and Wiener roared back from a 5-0 deficit to take his third set in dramatic fashion.
Part of the reason Hamilton was able to react to adverse situations was the looseness among the players.
“If I had to pick one thing that made this team special, it would have to be how funny some of these guys are,” Zarzecki said. “I can’t remember one practice or match in which I didn’t crack a chuckle or two, and most of the time it was a lot more than that. It’s going to be difficult to replace that next year.”
Tying it all together was Ditmars—a high school legend in Mercerville pick-up basketball games, who went on to develop a love and passion for coaching the game of tennis. Most men would give it up without having some type of success, but the veteran mentor keeps coming back year after year.
“Ditmars has such a calming effect on a team,” Wiener said. “He knows how to make you feel like you are always in the match and really teaches you to keep a level head during a match. This philosophy played a big role this year.”
“Coach uses his experience to help us with our game,” Zarzecki said. “He knows that everyone has a different style of play so he doesn’t try to teach us how to play the game. Instead, he takes notice of our playing style and makes little adjustments here and there. The little things all come together to help us achieve our goals.”
Zarzecki added that assistant coach Anthony Funari, affectionately known as The Roadhouse Man, also played a part this season.
“Although Ditmars is the head coach, I’ve got to show some love to Funari,” Zarzecki said. “At times when Ditmars couldn’t make it or was busy helping someone else, Funari stepped in and really helped me to become a better player this year.”
One of many better tennis players on West this year.
Ditmars is hoping it is the start of a trend.