Stronger Than Ever
Following last year's skiing accident that resulted in more knee damage than he cares to recall, Colt Hoeptner never questioned if he would return to the tennis court, the only thought was when.
He sat and watched his North Medford teammates place second overall in the Class 6A state tournament last year, and it only fueled his internal fire. He was happy for his teammates, for sure, but it's hard to be too happy when you're not really part of the competition.
"I went and supported my team at state, but it wasn't very fun watching everyone else play," he recalls.
It may not have been fun, but that outsider's view of the tennis being played may have been the best thing for him.
"From taking eight months off, just watching people and watching a lot of really good players, I broke down what I thought they should be doing," says Hoeptner, 18. "It kinda helped me a lot in my game just by watching everyone else."
Where Hoeptner began his North Medford career as a pure power hitter, he's taken his game to a new level as a senior.
"This year things have really come together for him," says North Medford boys tennis coach Hal Borg. "You never want to see a kid get hurt like that, especially as serious of an injury as it was, but the one thing I've noticed this year is he's playing the smartest tennis he's ever played."
Hoeptner can't disagree. His demeanor on the court is different, and the results have spoken for themselves with only one loss thus far in the high school season — a 7-6 (7-4), 6-2 decision against Jesuit's Nate Biggi in the Jesuit Invitational finals.
"I was a little too aggressive and went for things that I probably shouldn't have when I was younger," he admits, "but now I'm more patient."
It's a trait that should serve him well heading into today's Southwest Conference boys tennis district at Roseburg, where Hoeptner is the No. 1 seed in singles. He's had little trouble dispatching his SWC foes thus far, and is eager to make a return trip to the state tournament after what has been a two-year absence.
The SWC girls district also begins at 9 a.m. today at North Medford High. Each tourney will pick up with the championship semifinals and finals next Saturday at their respective sites.
"I think that this is a special year for him because his first three years, every year something has happened," says Borg. "He's had some bad breaks along the way."
Hoeptner advanced to state as a freshman, but drew the No. 1 seed in the first round and was one and done. His sophomore season coincided with a wealth of talented singles players in the district, and he came up short in the quarterfinals. Last year's skiing accident only added to the frustration.
"It's just exciting to finally get another chance," says Hoeptner, who lives in Eagle Point but has attended school in Medford since seventh grade. "Even though I've been to things bigger than this, it's still exciting to get a chance to go to state."
Given the nature of last year's injury, it's a wonder that he'll even have that chance. He suffered torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments and a meniscus tear in his knee, as well as damage to his femur.
"In my era when I was playing back in the '80s, with that kind of injury you were done ... you were just done," says Borg. "You would have to wear a big bulky brace and we didn't have the surgical repair that they have now."
In Hoeptner's case, he was sitting in a chair and returning shots from a ball machine within months of his surgery. He graduated to standing up with a knee brace while using the ball machine, and was taking lessons again from personal coach Frank Inn at about the six-month mark.
"I worked really hard to get my knee back in shape," says Hoeptner, who stands 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds. "I knew it was going to be tough and I'd have to work pretty hard to get back to it, but I knew I'd get back to it."
Once he returned, it didn't take long to see that his game had developed along with his knee.
"I really haven't seen a kid come back this quick and actually come back a better tennis player than he was last year," says Borg. "Not only is he playing power tennis, but he's thinking his way around the court, too."
"He can play a finesse game now and then change gears and play a power game," adds the coach, "and he's making much fewer errors this year. He's playing cleaner tennis and his serving percentage is way high, too."
Hoeptner's strength has always been a crisp two-handed backhand that complements a steady forehand and serve that averages around 100 miles per hour but gone as high as 120.
The only lingering negative from his knee injury was missing out on the big recruiting window most college coaches use when players are juniors. Missing the summer scene and various national tournaments made him a virtual unknown commodity heading into his senior season, and is one of the reasons Hoeptner will have to make headway as a walk-on at the University of Oregon next year.
Until then, he's focused on making the most of his final chances as a Black Tornado. With No. 2 singles player David Tribble and the state's top doubles tandem of Tanner Borg and Austin Schoenlein, North Medford has high hopes not only at the district but at state.
"Just us four going up to state, we wouldn't be able to win it by ourselves, though," warns Hoeptner. "We're definitely going to need to get a couple of our guys to do well at districts to get a couple more points at state because teams like Jesuit and some of the others can score a lot of points up there."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org