Underdog-turned-powerhouse CWRU men's tennis team wins school's first-ever national title
Case Western Reserve University’s men’s tennis team has made history by winning the school’s first-ever Division III national title in any sport, beating Tufts, 5-2, in Orlando, Florida.
The championship came after two consecutive runner-up finishes in 2021 and in 2022.
Ideastream Public Media commentator Terry Pluto said the underdog-turned-powerhouse team is led by longtime coach Todd Wojtkowski.
“Really, when he went to Case 15 years ago, it was kind of a — to be kind — a so-so tennis program and nothing of national prominence,” Pluto said.
Wojtkowski grew up in Youngtown, where his grandfather and father were steelworkers. His path to tennis and eventually coaching was unconventional.
“Todd used to work at a swim club in Youngstown as a lifeguard. He got to know the guy who taught tennis there and began to play tennis and fell in love with it. And by the time he was out of high school, he was good enough to play at Ohio State,” Pluto said.
After college, Wojtkowski got an assistantship as graduate coach at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina.
“And then the Case job came open and he heard about it. He applied for it. Now, like at the age of like 25, he got hired and he began to, you know, slowly build it up,” Pluto said.
CWRU’s star player is senior James Hopper, who won the doubles title with junior Vishwa Aduru. Hopper became the most-decorated player in program history.
Hopper also has an unconventional background, being cut from his New Jersey high school team as a freshman, and then getting spotted during a summer tournament by Wojtkowski.
“Remember, in Division III, you can't give scholarships, but you can recruit and you can say, 'You really ought to look at the program here, look at our academics.' You know, if the kid's smart, you can get some academic aid. He then went to Case Western, and it's like he just bloomed,” said Pluto.
This year’s senior class of Hopper, Michael Sutanto, Diego Maza and John Kasner bonded during the height of the pandemic.
“They rented this house together in Cleveland Heights near Roxboro Elementary because there was a track there and tennis courts so that they could practice and stay in shape and just kind of bonded them, that senior class, together,” Pluto said. “And they were the ones that made history.”
Kasner is another player with an underdog spirit.
“He ended up basically like the movie Rudy, you know, the walk-on there that played four years to finally get in the game," Pluto said. "And so Kasner, like, kind of ran the tutoring for the freshmen and sophomores, and he got to play finally in a match, a main match, as a senior. And he won this match against one of their big rivals, Carnegie Mellon.”
In addition to the team’s 3.8 GPA, Pluto said, the players work hard off the court.
“Like when these kids have their summer internships, like many of them do, [Wojtkowski] sets them up with drills to do. He says, ‘Get up at six or seven in the morning before you go to the office and do this.' Then they have tennis things that they could do on the weekends," Pluto said. "Anybody who goes to Case Western, you’re pretty, highly disciplined. And so, [Wojtkowski] plays into that and he also plays into the underdog role that, you know, you're the ones that are changing the culture here. It's not like you walk into an easy situation.”
As for Hopper, he’ll play at the University of Virginia as a graduate transfer next season, when he will join the five-time Division I champions on a scholarship.