Stetson head coach Pierre Pilote is no stranger to adversity. In his 18 years, the dean of A-Sun men's tennis coaches suffered more than seven losses just three times. The third time occurred this year, as the Hatters absorbed their most losses since 1995 - his second season at the helm.
The Hatters opened the 2011 dual match season with nine straight wins, and appeared well on their way to their fourth 20-win season in the last five years, but then junior captain Maksim Levanovic suffered a shoulder injury in the team's third conference match.
The injury sent Stetson into a tailspin, losing four of the next five matches, but with Levanovic back in time for the postseason, Pilote speaks of the invaluable experience his team gained competing without their captain.
"We started the season 9-0 and everybody was on full throttle," he said."We were looking forward to the nationally ranked teams we were about to start playing - we lost three very close matches. Then when Maksim Levanovic was about to beat the Player of the Year in the conference, [Campbell's] Davy Sum - serving at 5-3 he suffered an injury, an injury that kept him out for a month-and-a-half."
His squad's mental toughness has been forged in the furnace of heartbreak as well as injury. A year ago, the Hatters pushed the standard bearer of Atlantic Sun tennis, the (then) three-time defending champion ETSU Buccaneers, to the brink in the championship round. After finishing runner-up in the four previous A-Sun Championships, the previous three to ETSU, the Hatters finally had ETSU on the ropes, but a third-set injury to Didrik Berg severely limited the sophomore's mobility, and the Bucs' dynasty survived.
"After maybe three or four days of staying in my house, contemplating what just happened, I think everybody started looking forward to the season - a chance to show again what kind of team we have," Pilote said. "From the first practice on we didn't look back. We didn't want Didrik to feel that it was his fault in any way that we lost that conference championship. It was nothing he could have changed. It we keep bringing it up, it doesn't serve much purpose."
Through his career Pilote has coached numerous athletes, and holds a great deal of affection for all of them, but his fondness for this his 18th edition may exceed them all.
"It's a group - Maksim Levanovic, Njal Stene and Cesare Gallo - all came together as freshmen," Pilote said. "They were a group of men that look a long time to recruit...so that recruiting year was very important to us. They are just great young men; they're thoughtful, they work hard, they are amazing students without much motivation from me. They think about me - tonight we were supposed to go out to dinner, but they said 'no coach, you need your rest for tomorrow' you know I don't think many teams would pass a free dinner. I would just say they care."
If the Hatters can deliver a first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, the painful memories of all the previous near-misses will wash away, and Pilote will finally celebrate an A-Sun championship with his players, his team, his friends.