This weekend sees the collegiate tennis dual season draw to a close for both the Rice men's and women's teams. A year's worth of practice, conditioning, tournaments and dual action all wraps up with dual matches for the women on Saturday and the men the following day.
Both teams will pause to honor the senior members of their teams, an annual final salute to players who came to Rice to continue their tennis careers while parlaying that success as juniors and in high school into an opportunity to avail themselves of one of the top educational opportunities in the country.
Five of the six have led dual lives during their entire time at Rice, balancing the sometimes conflicting pursuit of excellence in the classroom and on the court in a manner that few outside the hedges can fully comprehend. Through sleepless nights soaked in doubt and faced with seemingly impossible deadlines, they have emerged as the latest evidence that while difficult, the twin pursuits can blend to produce a graduate ready to face down whatever challenges lie ahead in their futures.
The sixth will take his bows having lived a far more unique existence.
Dylan Tozier will be the third of three men's tennis seniors honored at Jake Hess Tennis Stadium on Sunday, ending his one season as a varsity athlete after attending Rice three years focused upon his academic pursuits.
While there are any number of former athletes at Rice who have transitioned to student life after injuries cut short their dreams of competitive success, it is rare to find a dedicated student, especially one who was hoping to earn admission to Cal Tech for graduate studies, who would suddenly opt for the physical and schedule demands of collegiate athletics.
Tozier was happy to take on the challenge, and on Sunday he will gladly take his bow and proudly accept his letterman's jacket, forever being affirmed as a student-athlete.
"He was a great addition to our team," Rice head men's coach Efe Ustundag said. "It would have been very easy for him to say that with the academic demands he had in front of him that it was too much to continue. But he never complained, and he always made up any practice time he had to miss because of classes. I think he gave the rest of the team a new perspective on the game, because he loves to play and was driven to improve and be an asset to the team."
Tozier was no stranger to a tennis court. He first began playing the sport while growing up in Tampa after souring on baseball when his youth league coach showed a stubborn tendency to play his own son over the best interests of team.
"I was 10 and at that point, I decided I'd had enough of baseball," Tozier said. "My mother had played tennis in high school and still played, but she wasn't too serious about it. But I was watching Wimbledon when I was nine and I made the comment to her that I wanted to play tennis, so she signed me up for lessons. I played high school tennis and competed in a few USTA tournaments, but I never took it too seriously. It was more of a hobby for me."
He was a two-year captain of his team at Plant High School in Tampa, but never considered himself in the class of player who could count on tennis to aid in his choice of colleges.
At Rice, he continued to dabble in the game, playing club tennis and serving at the club's President. He reconnected with Andy Wang, another player from Tampa who was playing for the Owls, and the two occasionally played a set or two.
Wang encouraged Tozier to look into joining the team.
"He said I should look into it, and after I thought about it for a while and realized it was the last chance I had to play a D1 sport, so I decided to go for it, " Tozier recalled.
Wang graduated last spring, but before leaving, he told Tozier that he had asked new Owls head coach Efe Ustundag to stop by to watch them play. Ustundag, who was taking over for Ron Smarr, knew that his squad for 2012-13 was lacking the depth needed to conduct full practices. He was looking for potential walk-ons. After watching Tozier hit with Wang, Ustundag was encouraged enough to tell Tozier to check back in at the start of the fall semester if he was still interested.
Tozier knew that he needed to vastly improve all aspects of his conditioning and play. A set with a friend while the coach was watching was one thing, being able to assimilate into a routine that others have followed for most of their lives was another.
The only problem was that most of his summer would be spent on an internship in Washington, D.C. and his free time was minimal. Thankfully, he had a three-week break from the end of his internship to the start of classes in the fall, and for those three weeks, Tozier became a tennis junkie.
"I had a lot of kinks to get out after three years of not playing at a competitive effort," Tozier said. "I started working out for the first time in my life. I wasn't able to play much tennis while I was on my internship,but I got into decent shape. In those three weeks at home, I pretty much played tennis all day, every day to get ready."
Tozier made his follow up call to Ustundag who was true to his word and invited him to come over to Jake Hess and hit with the team. Ustundag extended the offer to join the team and Tozier immediately set out to show that he did not take the invitation lightly.
"I decided if I was going to join the team, I didn't want to do it half-hearted. I wanted to improve to where I would be able to contribute. If I wasn't practicing as much as the rest of the team I would never get anywhere close to their level. I knew from the beginning that I had to make a full commitment. I have definitely gotten a lot better and I am to the point where I feel like I can keep up with practice and contribute in some ways."
Tozier became the tennis rookie on a team with four veteran student-athletes (Jonathan Chang, Peter Frank, Phililpp Seifert and Leif Berger) and three rookie college students in freshmen Tommy Bennett, Gustavo Gonzalez, Adam Gustafsson. The four newcomers found themselves in a unique position to share experiences with the other.
"I was a senior but at the same time, I was the newest guy on the team, because the freshmen had been in for a while and had been practicing with the team. It was an interesting place to me. I had the three years of experience in academics at Rice so I got to talk to them about classes at Rice and they talked to me about how to get better at tennis. It worked out pretty well."
What his Owl teammates learned quickly was that while Tozier had a clear understanding of his role, he was not willing to cut corners. He fully committed to be a full member of the team, making up any missed sessions with the team due to class commitments, a commitment that resulted in a major change in the routine he had for his first three years.
"It's a lot different, I don't see people as much around campus, but it is definitely enjoyable. I was quite excited about the opportunity, It definitely makes the academics more difficult since a significant amount of your time is taken up with practices. These last couple weeks have been tough because my Senior Design project is coming due."
Over the past eight months, Tozier and his friends have gained a new perspective on the rigors of the dual assignment of academics and athletics.
"It's been eye-opening to my roommates, because now I am the one telling them I have to get to sleep because I have morning conditioning before classes. I don't think any of us really understood what kind of schedule it takes to be an athlete at Rice."
His academic work paid dividends when he was accepted Cal Tech, where he will do graduate work in the school's Material Science graduate program.
His athletic work reached a milestone in March when he up his first career win at as Owl, teaming with Gonzalez to defeat a duo from USC in the opening round of the West Coast Doubles Championship in La Jolla, California. On Sunday, he will close a brief collegiate career by playing against Prairie View in the second of two matches that day. But he doesn't plan for it to be his last time facing college tennis players.
"I noticed that they have a DIII men's tennis team at Cal Tech, so I am sure I will find a way to hit some balls with them," he smiled.