Varsity Kansas

Two-time state champion wins regional without serving overhand

Carroll senior Rodney Steven is going for his third straight Class 5A tennis championship. This year has been a struggle with a lingering shoulder injury.
Carroll senior Rodney Steven is going for his third straight Class 5A tennis championship. This year has been a struggle with a lingering shoulder injury. The Wichita Eagle

Rodney Steven looked as if he was playing ping-pong in the garage, not high school tennis in a regional final.

Steven has struggled with an injured labrum in his shoulder since he was a sophomore at Carroll. He is dealing with it again this season, and it came back hard Friday at the Class 5A Regional Tournament at Eisenhower.

Every time he raised his hand above his shoulder, Steven felt a sharp pain in his right shoulder. He stretched it during and after matches, but nothing seemed to help.

He didn't quit, though.

Steven started serving underhand. His returns were strong as long as the ball stayed below his shoulders, and he pushed through to win the singles bracket. He will enter the Class 5A state tournament with one of the top seeds.

And that is huge.

After securing a top-six finish, necessary to qualify for state, coach Darren Huslig had questions about Steven's health and whether he could or should go on. He left it up to his champion, and Steven chose to play.

Huslig said Steven would have been upset even if he had lost with only one good shoulder.

"He works at his game so much," Huslig said. "He is always hitting. He is always taking lessons. So he demands a lot of himself."

The possibility of a three-peat has started to creep into Steven's head, he said. Carroll has never had an individual athlete win back-to-back-to-back state championships, and that is something he is chasing.

"I've been playing my best tennis I've ever been playing," he said. "Everything has been coming together. With the shoulder, it's been a little tough, but I think I'll still be all right."

Steven started playing tennis at 4. His dad, a former college player, introduced it to him, and Steven fell in love. He started entering in tournaments at 12, and now he spends five hours a day on the court in the summer and has a trainer.

"I want to do something with my tennis," Steven said. "I want to go to college on a scholarship, play on a good team. It's just always been a part of my life. That's all I know."

Huslig said he knew Steven was going to be special. If someone had told him he would go on to win two state championships with a chance at a third, Huslig said he wouldn't have been surprised but also wouldn't have expected it.

Huslig said Steven dedicated his life to tennis at an early age and is as committed to the game as possible, but that commitment has taken its toll.

He was held out of several meets this season, including the City League Championships last week. Carroll won the title by a point over Kapaun, but the cushion likely would have been much greater with Steven on the court.

Now, with regional competition behind him, Steven will meet frequently with his trainer and try to rest as much as possible before state. Huslig said they will just have to wait and see if he has enough left in the tank when they get to Emporia on Friday.

Huslig has been coach at Carroll for 15 years and has taken the Eagles to great heights but has never won a state championship. This year's group has been a challenge with an ever-rotating lineup and injuries to match.

"This year's team has been special and, at the same time, frustrating," he said.

Huslig said Carroll's greatest strength was also a tough task to deal with. Only six players can qualify for state from the same team, but the Eagles have at least eight who could have done it.

"It still remains to be seen if the lineup I made was the best move in the long run," Huslig said.

Although tough decisions had to be made, the Eagles will roll into state with that depth at its disposal. Most teams will have one or two headliners but lose team points with a lack of talent behind those players.

Carroll has both this season. Steven will be the favorite to win the 5A singles bracket again this season and with qualified players like Ty Stranghoner and Nolan Conrad, Steven said he believes 2018 could be the year.

"We came in together as freshman, a lot of us," he said. "We are playing really well right now, and we will definitely have a chance."