LIMA — Dylan Niese and Zach Schroeder are longtime friends who grew up within walking distance of each other’s homes.
Pierre Desprat grew up in France.
Niese and Schroeder started playing tennis in seventh grade after LCC coach Kevin Bruin spent years trying to spark their interest. Both are now four-year members of the T-Birds’ tennis team and have grown into tall, athletic players built perfect for the tennis court.
Desprat started playing tennis when he was 3 years old, had never played for a high school sports team until arriving to LCC as an exchange student in August and is about average height for a high school sophomore.
But put him on a tennis court, and he’s a giant.
“(Coming into the season) I thought we’d have a decent team, not a world-beater but respectable,” Bruin said. “Then Pierre showed up.”
The trio of Desprat, Niese and Schroeder may come from different backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: They have been masterful in the 2014 boys tennis regular season.
As a team, the Thunderbirds are 16-1 heading into the Division II sectional tournament, Thursday and Saturday at the University of Northwestern Ohio (UNOH) tennis courts.
Between them, the aforementioned trio have lost all of one individual match and have been at the heart of a very deep squad that has already made plenty of highlights, including winning the Lima City Tennis Tournament and beating Shawnee in a dual match — a rarity according to Bruin.
“I couldn’t really ask for a better senior season,” Niese said. “My freshman year, I thought the team was really good because we had a lot of seniors and juniors who were really good. I thought, how could we ever be that good?”
Desprat has been virtually untouchable as the No. 1 singles player with an 18-0 record. Schroeder is 9-1 as the No. 2 singles player and Niese is 10-0 at No. 3 singles.
Where Schroeder and Niese really shine is as a doubles team, where they are 8-0. The duo is the No. 3 seed heading into the tournament, the same seed they were a year ago when they just missed qualifying for districts in a three-set marathon loss to a St. Marys team.
“We were good enough to go (to districts) and it was disappointing,” Schroeder said. “Over the summer Dylan and I played a lot together because we know how good the other teams are. We know we can get there if we play our game.”
Schroeder and Niese are perfect complements: Schroeder provides the daring shots while Niese brings a more disciplined approach. As a team, their strength is at the net and their aggressiveness has increased a ton.
Being lifelong friends also helps, as does the mentorship they received from LCC standouts like 2013 grad and four-time state qualifier Alex Swick along with other recent state qualifiers such as John Kidd, Brandon French and Brian Bruin.
“It just motivated us, seeing how hard they worked to get there,” Niese said. “I wanted to get as far as they did.”
Schroeder said Swick and Kidd, who went to state as a doubles team in 2012 and 2011, taught him a great deal about how to be a successful doubles player. Swick also had a big influence on teaching him how to be a team leader.
“Having Alex here my first three years of high school, I learned a lot from him,” Schroeder said. “Him not being here, we had to lead the team. I try to use a lot of the things we learned from him, his tennis knowledge and leadership.”
One of the immediate ways Schroeder and Niese showed their leadership and maturity was in the way they handled Desprat joining the team. Heading into the season, Schroeder was going to be the No. 1, but when it was clear the exchange student would claim that role, the transition was seamless.
“I saw him playing at Westwood in the winter,” Schroeder said. “He was ridiculously good, just ripping shots. I was really impressed.
“I knew before the year I’d be No 1 singles, and I didn’t know how I’d match up against the other best players. I like doubles more, I’m more of a doubles player so I didn’t know how I was going to do. Once Pierre came into the picture that took some of the pressure off of me.”
Bruin first heard about Desprat prior to this school year from his sponsor, Mary Andrews.
“She said, ‘I’ve got a French exchange student who plays tennis and he says he’s pretty good,’” Bruin said. “She asked if we had any team functions to keep him in mind.”
A couple weeks later, LCC did. Desprat appeared and hit a few balls and “within two minutes” Bruin realized how good he was.
“I’ve had exchange students before who were OK., but they didn’t change the makeup of the team. His game is effortless, he doesn’t look like he’s hitting the ball hard but he is. He’s very accurate with his shots. Of course, you hit the ball a million times down the line you’ll eventually get pretty good at it.”
Desprat started playing competitively when he was 8 or 9 years old and has dedicated himself to the game since then.
“I just played every day, a lot of practice and conditioning,” he said. “It’s playing in clubs (in France), we don’t have sports teams at school, so it’s real different playing for a team. I love playing here, it’s a good team and good kids.”
Niese said Desprat’s presence has had a huge impact on the team, not just in terms of the outstanding record.
“He was a boost to the team in general, really showing us we can all win,” Niese said.
Not having a background in high school sports means Desprat has little understanding of the postseason. Still, he said it’s a “big deal” and he’s looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, for the program and Bruin, he loses all three players after this season. Niese and Schroeder both graduate and Desprat leaves for France on June 2 — the state tournament is May 30-31.
However, that doesn’t mean their one-year run won’t have a lasting impact on the younger players who can look up to their example.
“They’re first of all wonderful young men and good students who just happen to play tennis,” Bruin said. “In the big picture, that’s what’s going to get them through in life, they’re academics and studying. Tennis is a wonderful sport to help you with that.”