Kalamazoo tennis goes streaking — 79 years and counting
It’s arguably the most dominant college athletics program in the country.
And, unless you’re from Kalamazoo, and maybe even if you are, you could guess and guess and guess — let’s say, oh, for the next 79 years — and come up completely empty.
With a 9-0 victory over Adrian on Wednesday, the Kalamazoo College men’s tennis team clinched at least a share of its 79th consecutive conference championship.
You read that right. Seventy-nine.
The last time Kalamazoo didn’t win the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association title in men’s tennis — outside of 1944-46, when nobody played due to World War II — it was 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his first term as president (he would serve into a fourth), the “Wizard of Oz” hadn’t even been shot yet, Bobby Riggs hadn’t yet won Wimbledon, and the average person’s salary was $1,500.
Today, one year of classes at Kalamazoo College today will cost you about $55,000.
“When people hear about ‘The Streak,’ ” said coach Mark Riley, “they think they’re hearing things. Because it is kind of crazy.”
On the campus of Kalamazoo College, a private, Division III university, they talk about “The Streak” as a proper noun. And with good reason.
There’s never been anything like it in the history of college athletics.
And with a win Saturday over visiting Albion, Kalamazoo will have clinched the outright championship, which is the ultimate goal every year — certainly not a share. That’s why after winning Wednesday, the celebration was subdued. Riley doused his seniors with water from a Gatorade bottle, and the team went to dinner at the Crow’s Nest in Kalamazoo.
“It was pretty low-key,” Riley said.
In 1931, Dr. Allen B. Stowe, a chemistry professor and the chairman of the college’s chemistry department, started the tennis program at Kalamazoo.
And boy, did he find the right formula for success.
Kalamazoo won MIAA titles in 1931, 1932 and 1933, came up short the next two years, and haven’t come up short since — for the rest of his 27-year tenure, George Acker’s 35-year tenure, Timon Corwin’s 14-year tenure, and Riley’s 10 years as the fourth coach in the program’s storied history.
In all but three of those years, Kalamazoo won the conference outright. It shared with Hope in 1962 and 2003, and with Hope and Calvin in 2013.
“ ‘The Streak’ is a big part of the culture,’” said Eric De Witt, a senior from the Lansing area. “And there’s always pressure, no matter who’s on the other side of the net.
“Clinching No. 79, I think we all feel that weight lifted.
“It’s something that all the players and all the teammates take great pride in holding up.”
Aside from the 79-year title streak, there are other ridiculous numbers. For instance, Kalamazoo College has lost just three conference dual matches since 1935. It also has participated in every Division III NCAA Tournament, which started in 1976.
The Hornets have won seven national championships (most recently in 1993), finished runner-up three times, and finished third nine times.
Still, it’s “The Streak” that seems to matter most to those who have had a hand in it, including Riley, an All-American and two-time captain at Kalamazoo in the early 1980s.
“A lot of people don’t even know about ‘The Streak,’ ” said Riley, “but ‘The Streak’ is kind of a big deal to people who know tennis. We just want to protect ‘The Streak’ and enjoy it.”
That Kalamazoo has been able to restock the talent pool for more than eight decades is also mighty impressive, given there are no athletic scholarships in Division III — and, again, Kalamazoo College isn’t cheap. It’s actually the most expensive college in Michigan.
But the program’s reputation surely helps, as it did for senior Branden Metzler, who had an offer, with some scholarship money, to play Division I, at Green Bay.
The Rockford, Illinois, native ultimately chose Kalamazoo, after a recommendation from a tennis acquaintance back home, Eric Trautman, who played from 1981-83.
“He told me a little bit about it and what it meant to him,” he said. “It’s something special.
“It’s something that we love to play for and we get up every morning ready to go, ready to fight for that championship every year.”
De Witt had other offers from some smaller schools, but his older sister had attended Kalamazoo, and that was a selling point. There’s a strong family-ties vibe at Kalamazoo. Tennis alums of all generations still keep up, and often stop by.
Kalamazoo has also a big draw in its tennis facilities — an outdoor stadium, Stowe Stadium (“Like the Yankee Stadium of tennis,” Riley said), and a four-court indoor gem. It hosts nationals every year for 18-year-old boys and 16-year-old boys.
What’s even more remarkable about “The Streak” — there have been very few close calls over the years.
But there was one in 2013, when early in the season, Kalamazoo was stunned by Calvin, then had to live on pins and needles the rest of the season.
Kalamazoo did its part by winning out, but then during the last match of the season, it needed Hope to beat Calvin to force the three-way share and keep “The Streak” alive. While Kalamazoo was mid-match, the players’ and coaches’ cell phones all started pinging. Whew! Hope did its part, but Riley immediately took stock in the state of the program.
“When we lost and ‘The Streak’ was in jeopardy, it was like a fog over the tennis program for those couple weeks,” Riley said. “I promised myself I would go out and work a little harder and find the guys, the athletes who can make it work.”
That next recruiting class included De Witt and Metzler, as well as Alberto Ayala from Tallahassee, Florida, and two more Michigan kids, Jacob Scott from Canton and Spencer Navarre from Ortonville. The next year’s class reached all the way to Spain (Guillermo Dominguez), and so did the class after that (Ricardo DelOlmo-Parrado), while also adding another kid from tennis-rich Florida (Allen Vinson).
Kalamazoo hasn’t lost a dual conference match since.
Sure, some other schools in the MIAA might not take tennis as seriously as Kalamazoo. The competition isn’t always that much competition, at all.
But with a target on its back, Kalamazoo, of course, usually gets everyone’s best shot — and, well, 79 consecutive championships? That’s unbelievable, all the same.
“It’s unreal,” Metzler said. “For me, ‘The Streak’ is more than just ‘The Streak.’ It’s about the past players and teammates, everything, it’s about the whole Kalamazoo College.
“It makes us who we are.”