Created on Tuesday, 12 May 2015 07:00 | Written by Kerry Eggers | The Portland Tribune
Tennis is more country club than public courts. It can be an expensive sport, with equipment and lessons and travel often leaving high school teams in the higher socio-economic areas taking home the most trophies.
Sometimes, though, hard work and determination negates such factors. John Block is trying to help make that happen at Roosevelt High.
Block, 25, is in his first season as the Roughriders boys’ head coach. The director of tennis at St. Johns Racquet Center in North Portland, Block is trying to put together a program that can match the best the PIL has to offer.
Prize freshmen Miguel Diaz-DeLeon and Alberto Murillo will lead the Roughriders into the PIL district meet, which starts today at Grant. They probably won’t win, but Block expects his team to be competitive.
“The biggest thing is, we want the kids to be proud of what they have,” Block says.
Roosevelt has been a cellar-dweller through the years in boys tennis, in no small part to an aging facility and inadequate equipment.
When Block showed up at Roosevelt in late winter to survey the courts, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
“The nets were shot,” he says. “There were cracks (in the surface) everywhere. Grass was growing in the cracks. One of the kids called it ‘grass-phalt.’ Trash littered the perimeter. Lines were barely noticeable, if they existed. You couldn’t tell if the ball was in or out.”
Instead of practicing, the Roosevelt players spent the first few days working the courts.
“They swept the courts with push brooms so they could paint the lines by hand,” says Block, who played his high school tennis at Grant.
“The lines were pretty bad, but we got some paint and did it ourselves, which was actually fun,” says Diaz-DeLeon, 15, Roosevelt’s No. 1 singles player. After the work was completed, “they’re pretty nice now for outside courts.”
Sophomore Cortland Wallingford, half of Roosevelt’s No. 1 doubles tandem, created a team logo that was painted onto the courts.
“We love the courts now, even though they’re not the best,” Block says.
Many of Block’s 12 varsity players — there is no freshman or junior varsity team — didn’t own racquets. For the first month, the Roughriders trained with wooden racquets found in the basement of the school.
“Our practice balls are kind of dead, but we don’t complain about it,” Block says. “There were some practice balls left in the basement, and I got some dead balls from St. Johns we were able to use. We got them re-pressurized at the start of the season. They worked until our first practice in the rain.”
The budget allowed for team uniforms purchased through Nike, on par with those used by other PIL programs.
There was some serendipity in Block’s hiring at Roosevelt. He had worked with both Diaz-DeLeon and Murillo, as well as several other players, in St. Johns’ Portland After School Tennis & Education (PASTE) program, which offers tutoring and life-skills instruction as well as tennis skill work. Diaz-DeLeon and Murillo are the two oldest year-round students in PASTE’s high school academy, which allows them to participate in a youth developmental tennis program and compete in USTA Junior Division tournaments.
Block “is a really good coach,” says Murillo, 14, who like Diaz-DeLeon has been a member of the PASTE program since grade school. “He’s the one who taught me how to play really good tennis.”
The 5-5, 125-pound Diaz-DeLeon and the 5-11, 200-pound Murillo led the way to a team victory over Benson — “first time ever,” Block says — and close losses to Wilson and Cleveland. Diaz-DeLeon is 5-2 in PIL matches, Murillo 3-4.
“They’re getting better all the time,” Block says. “We’re going to have a good run with them over the next few years. By the time they’re seniors, they should be threats at the state tournament. And we have five or six kids coming up who look just like they did at that age.”
Murillo has high goals, too.
“I feel like I did really well for my first year,” he says, “but so did a lot of our guys. We’re going to get better. We’d like to win the (PIL) team title before we’re through.”
DeLeon and Murillo will play their home matches somewhere else the next two years.
“There is going to be construction on campus, and we’re going to lose these courts,” Block says. “Our tennis program will be off-campus for the next two years, and then we’ll have brand-new courts when they’re seniors.”
Fielding a competitive team is big for Block. But something else carries even greater importance.
“I didn’t expect to come to Roosevelt and have a group of kids who are willing to work this hard — paint their own lines, sweep their own courts, and work as hard as they do in a practice,” he says. “It’s a real enthusiastic group of guys. We joke around a lot, but we also take it pretty seriously. We like to compete.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen that from a school like Roosevelt. It was a cool surprise to have a great group of kids to work with.”