Okemos Boys Tennis Stocked with State Titles and Big-Time Talent
The Chieftains Look to be in State Title Contention for Years, Thanks to Many of the State’s Best Prep Players
OKEMOS, Mich. – A certain level of commitment is needed to drive over 150 miles to Grand Rapids to train. To do that drive, twice per week for almost three months, is dedication.
That journey is made by members of the Okemos high school boys’ tennis team, which is filled with locally-, regionally-, and nationally-ranked players. The talent on the team has carried to the Chieftains to repeating as state champions this year.
There are 12 players on the roster, with eight are ranked in Michigan’s top 30 in their respective class according to Tennisrecruting.net.
Junior Ben Letzer, sophomores Rohan Shah and Josh Portnoy and freshman Ozan Colak rank top 10 in Michigan. They all train together at the Grand Rapids Racquet and Fitness Center under coaches Mike Flowers and Tom Walker. It’s in Grand Rapids that they train with the majority of the top junior tennis players in the state, according to head coach, Chris Silker. During the high school season, the boys make the trip from Okemos at least twice a week.
“Practice there is tough, but it’s worth it. It gets you the competition you need to play tournaments during the offseason,” Shah said.
Practicing together has its perks, according to Letzer, giving a needed edge during the high school season.
“Since it’s extremely competitive when we’re there, we’re always pushing each other to get better. I think that really makes the difference,” Letzer added.
The Chieftains looked to repeat in 2018, coming off an undefeated season. With fresh nationally ranked talent leading the team, the boys did just that, winning six of the eight flights in 2018 Division II State Championship.
“It’s something that I had known was coming and had been working toward literally for about six years,” Silker said. “We were trying to fill the gaps, raise the abilities of some of the lower members on the team to know that when that freshman class came in, we weren’t starting with them, we were finishing with them. We knew they were going to be the pieces to fill the void, but everybody else had to be ready for that…So, to see that coalesce into a dominant performance by a very young team, was really a cool thing to be a part of.”
The 2018 team is still young, with only three graduating seniors. The team entered the state tournament 17-1, with a sole loss to Division I state champions, Bloomfield Hills. The Okemos was seeded No. 1 in all eight flights heading into the tournament.
“There are obviously nerves going into any state tournament,” said Daniel Gorelik, the 2018 state champion in No.1 doubles, said. “We all were confident in our abilities to convert and we had been practicing playing under pressure.”
Colak, Letzer, Portnoy, and Shah won all four singles titles at the state championship.
In 2017, the Chieftains lost two of the four singles in the state championship, with Portnoy losing one of them. This years final was about redemption, as Portnoy defeated all his opponents in two sets - leaving some of them baffled.
“I personally was pretty nervous because I had lost in the finals last year,” Portnoy, a five-star 2021 recruit, said. “The kid I played in this year’s final, I played a while back in a junior tournament. I just remember playing in the final match telling myself that I couldn’t let that happen again. It felt amazing to finally get an individual state title and get the job done!”
Colak landed the No. 1 singles after an extensive team try-out process, which is the position for the best player on the team. He was a great fit as he swept all his matches in the state tournament, winning his state final match, 6-3, 6-1.
“I was prepared for it. I wanted to play one singles, I wanted to play the hardest people,” he said. “Some of the matches were tough, I had some losses, one of them being someone who’s ranked top 20 in the country for seniors. So, playing 1 singles I got some really good matches in.”
Colak is currently the No. 1 freshman tennis player in Michigan and the Midwest. He’s also ranked No. 9 nationally amongst the class of 2022, and with the national top-25 ranking he’s considered a blue-chip, which is the highest ranking a junior tennis player can receive.
“Nothing against other great programs, but we have three 4-stars and a blue chip,” Silker said. “I had a 3-star and 2-star playing No. 2 doubles, there’s no one in the state that has, regardless of the division, that has that talent, that deep.”
Colak’s aspirations are bigger than high school tennis, as his goal is to play professionally. This school year, he’ll be missing close to 40 days of class because of training and attending tournaments across the country. In December, he will play in the Junior Orange Bowl in Miami.
The tournament will have over 1,300 of the top ranked 12-and-under, and 14-and-under junior tennis players representing over 70 countries. The tournament’s alumni include stars Sloane Stephens, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and more. Colak was also invited by the USTA to train at their junior development training center in Orlando, Florida a week prior to the event.
“In tennis, there are key characteristics that you can see from an early age; patience, love of the sport and work ethic, that really just separated him from the pack early on,” Silker said. “He’s been fortunate that he’s been given opportunities to continue that track and we hope those opportunities continue to arise for him.”
Silker and the Chieftains are coming into the 2019 season as a strong favorite to take the Division II state championship. And with their nationally ranked underclassmen, dominance for years to come seems somewhat inevitable.
“We’re going to be on the court, playing all the time, all year round,” Shah said. “Playing tournaments, always practicing, having tough competition and it pays off in the end. During high school season, we give it our all. The last two years have shown, it works. We won two state championships, in the end, a third looks promising.”