Injured Hawk takes one for the team
You never know who the hero will be in a championship tennis match. It comes down to who’s on the court with everything on the line, with a chance to clinch the title.
In Monday’s Division I championship, it was Connor Shumate of South Kingstown. When he won the sixth game of the second set at No. 2 singles, his teammates raced onto the court and mobbed him. He had clinched the winning point and the Rebels had captured their 14th consecutive state title.
Shumate was the hero.
In my book, his opponent wasn’t far behind.
Evan Chomka is a senior at Hendricken, a four-year starter who played singles from the moment he stepped onto the court. He was hoping to finish his high-school career with a bang and help lead the Hawks to a championship upset of the Rebels.
As South celebrated, Chomka walked slowly to his bag and chatted with his coach. He shrugged and smiled.
This was not what he was hoping for in his final match.
But at the same time, it was everything any teammate, coach or fan could ever hope for.
Chomka played one-handed. He even played well. The important thing was that he played.
The week before, Chomka fell during the regular season finale against La Salle and injured his left wrist. He shook it off and kept playing, but it just kept hurting. Eventually, with a team win secured, Chomka forfeited.
An X-Ray delivered the bad news. Chomka had broken a bone in his wrist. He’s right-handed, so it didn’t mean the absolute end of the line. But it wasn’t good.
Not only were his hopes of finishing strong as an individual looking dim, so were his team’s championship hopes.
If Chomka couldn’t play in the postseason, Hendricken would have to shuffle its whole lineup, moving its third and fourth singles players up and shuffling the doubles ladder.
They’d be in trouble.
So Chomka played.
It was a struggle in Saturday’s semifinals. He was out of rhythm from the start. He couldn’t serve overhand. Eventually, the pain was too much and he had to forfeit again.
But the Hawks still won, beating La Salle for a spot in the championship.
Chomka again had a choice.
For him, there wasn’t a hint of doubt.
“It’s a championship,” Chomka said. “I had to go out there. It was my last match.”
His coach, Mike Haxton, didn’t want to push him, but he wasn’t surprised at his senior’s choice.
“I left it up to him,” Haxton said. “I was ready to go either way. He said, ‘I’m going to gut it out. It’s my last match.’”
The morning of Monday’s championship, Chomka and Haxton worked on a modified serve. Hold the racket under the left arm, throw the ball up with the right hand, grab the racket while the ball’s in mid-air and go.
For first serves, Chomka would give it a go, but he knew it would still be a struggle.
And then a funny thing happened.
Chomka broke Shumate’s serve in the first game of their match. He got his own serve in enough to hang around, and though Shumate had the edge, Chomka wouldn’t go away. He broke Shumate three more times, taking four games in the first set.
On all the courts, the action was intense, but nobody could keep from looking over at Chomka and Shumate from time to time. Everybody was thinking the same thing.
Can you believe this?
He needed only to be in the lineup to do his job. If he lost 6-0, 6-0, it wouldn’t matter. But there he was, hanging tough every step of the way, running all over the court and getting that funky serve in more often than not.
In the end, there was no magic, no Hollywood ending. Shumate prevailed 6-4 in the first set then ran away with the second set, clinching the title for his team with a 6-0 victory.
But Chomka won something else.
“I’m sure Connor’s saying, ‘What’s this guy hanging around for?’” Haxton said. “I’ve got nothing but praise for Chomka.”
As he received his medal with an ice pack on his wrist, Chomka got a louder ovation than anybody not wearing a South Kingstown uniform. Everybody knew what he’d done.
He played. When his team needed him the most, he played.
“He gutted it out,” Haxton said.
Chomka will take a few weeks off to let the wrist heal. Then he’ll prepare for a college tennis career at Bentley.
He won’t have a championship to look back on, an incredible moment to remember.
Evan Chomka wasn’t the championship hero.
Just a different kind of hero.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.