VSU finished second last year at the NCAA tournament (Michael would tell you that they should have won), and the chance for redeeming that loss will elude him as he prepares to graduate in December.
Michael Kuech–‘Meeshy’ to teammates and close friends– is in his last semester at VSU and thus can’t help the highly-ranked Blazer tennis team compete for a national championship next spring.
Born and raised in Germany, Michael speaks great English, although you can hear the distinct accent of someone raised elsewhere. In Germany, tennis is a very popular sport, and although it will never be as popular as soccer, several prominent professional players helped put tennis on the map.
“[There were] major tennis players like Boris Becker, Steffie Graph, and there was a big boom,” Michael said. “It is still pretty big, nothing compared to America, but in Germany it’s a big deal.”
Michael is a part of the recent ‘boom’ in the recruitment of foreign players. This has not always been the case.
“A coach goes after the best players,” John Hansen, longtime VSU tennis coach, said. “And most of the guys we have now are friends with somebody who used to be on the team, so those guys after they graduate and leave will say, hey, you need to look at this guy–he’s pretty good.”
Michael has turned out to be pretty good himself, earning All-American honors last year.
The tall tennis specimen is 22, and can boom serves down the middle or use his excellent return game to neutralize potential aces. The right-hander has no preference on which stroke he beats you with, whether it is a backhand past an unsuspecting poacher at the net or a forehand he whips across the court.
When Michael came to Valdosta his mind was set on playing, and succeeding, in singles. Doubles was more of an afterthought. However, in a system where doubles affects match scores more, Meeshy came to enjoy and eventually prefer doubles.
“It counts more here, and I practiced more and more doubles, and I used to not like it but now I really love it,” Michael said.
In the NCAA tournament, teams play three doubles matches worth a point each, followed by six singles matches, also worth a point. If a team does poorly in doubles to start the match, it could prove to be too big a hole to climb out of. The first team to five points wins.
VSU won two of three possible doubles matches to open the championship, but eventually fell 5-4 overall.
“We were supposed to win because we were up 4-1 [overall points] in the final, and it was a devastating loss,” Michael said.
Even with the loss, it was a great year. Michael and his partner, Phillip Pakebusch, were ranked first in the nation in doubles. They won their championship match in a tiebreak, one of many tight matches played that day.
But before Michael was an All-American playing for college championships, he was working on fitting in at a foreign place.
Michael’s visit to Valdosta was the first he made to the United States, and it wasn’t close to what he expected.
“[It was hard] getting to know the southern culture, which is different than I thought America was like,” Michael said. “I mean it is still America, but this is more like real America. The big cities like New York are more like Europe, but in southern states it is nice and people are friendly.”
Hansen is often asked how the foreign players adapt to American culture.
“Probably the biggest question I get about all our international kids is how they handle the language difference,” Hansen said. “And in actuality they speak better English than we do because they learn it the real way.”
This was not immediately the case for Michael. In his classes he kept mostly to himself, still working on a language he never completely understood in high school.
“In high school I had five years of English, but I always had a D–it was terrible–the first semester I took biology and I didn’t say anything,” Michael said.
After a few short weeks, though, his English had improved dramatically.
“Once you are in the country it is way easier–you are forced to learn it,” Michael said. “I lived with a Swedish dude, and now with a Belgium guy and I have to talk English. We always stay together. It is kind of bonding and team building–you get to know each other.”
Hansen said the team’s desire to be around each other has never been a problem. “What helps us out, in his case, is there are a bunch of other Germans on the team and so that helped him fit in a little bit. Our team is a pretty close knit team.”
Michael’s graduation makes this fall at VSU his last, the part of the year Hansen likes to call the non-traditional season, hinting that there is never a true offseason. Most of the players are getting back into tennis shape and many return from their homes. Meeshy’s family now resides in Belgium, and he goes back home every summer to see them and a few friends.
Upon his return this fall, Michael got right back into rhythm.
“You know so many people, and the weather is always awesome, and it’s a great atmosphere to study and play tennis,” Michael said.
All colleges are limited in what they can do during the fall semester involving players, and players and coaches can practice only eight hours a week, two with a racquet, the rest being conditioning.
Yet Michael is still seen conditioning with his team, even though he is no longer on scholarship, even if only to boost morale.
“He was out here conditioning yesterday, and you know, why [would he put himself through that]?” Hansen said, referring to his willingness to help out.
Michael does not mind, as long as he can keep the mood light.
“I just want to stay in shape and of course support my team,” Michael said. “They are going through tough team conditioning right now and if I am joking and loosening the
atmosphere, then I am still useful a little bit and I can show them that it is still worth it to work hard.”
During the spring the other players will go through a much more rigorous practice schedule.
Michael recalls of his previous springs. “In spring the season starts and you play matches against different colleges and in the spring every day practice, in the morning conditioning, evening conditioning. School comes first always, coach says, but then tennis comes,” he said as if he has rehearsed this speech before.
Leaving Valdosta will definitely be a hard transition for Michael, as it is for every graduating senior. “It will be tough to leave probably, but you’ve got to move on in your life,” Michael said.
Meeshy, however, was sure that he made the right choice to come to Valdosta.
“There were other options in South Carolina and Hawaii, but I am glad I came here. It is first always tough when you think Valdosta when you come from a bigger city in Europe and it is so small, but after a while you are in a big family with the tennis team and the university.”
Michael is majoring in finance and will have his degree in December. Germany has a similar college structure to the United States with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Now that he is off scholarship, Michael helps pay for school through the fifth year program. He has to work certain school events, such as line judging VSU volleyball matches, and helps with the tennis team, and in return is rewarded with money towards school.
“He’s a great kid,” Hansen said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have him for three and a half years., He’s one of those guys who is going to do well after he leaves.”
Valdosta is looking to come back strong for another title run, losing only one member from the team, Meeshy.
“We actually think we are going to be stronger, not because he’s graduating, but we had two guys who were in school last year who were not eligible who should fill the holes that we had,” Hansen said. “We didn’t lose anybody but Meeshy.”
It is never easy to replace a player who was an All-American and ranked first in doubles, but maybe the area he will be missed most is neither of those. The attribute that will be missed most of Meeshy is his constant bright mood and his ability to bring the team together.
“Everybody likes Meeshy, he’s a good guy,” Hansen said. “Great personality. So, he’s fun to have around, and that helps team camaraderie. They really don’t understand it until it is all over. The funny thing is, while they are eligible and they are playing it’s always aw ya’ know if they do this I’m not playing or if they do that I’m not playing and then all the sudden you can’t play and you say ‘holy cow’ I’m glad I played.”
Michael is surely glad he played, and his competitive spirit and team-playing attitude are attributes that help in the next stage of life. Michael came to VSU to play for the tennis team, but he will leave ‘Meeshy’, a part of the tennis family.