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Original Issue

A Dynasty in Denver

In mile-high country a tennis team has put together a streak that's over the moon

Richard Nixon was President. Mark Spitz had just won seven Olympic gold medals. Pete Sampras was in diapers. In Colorado, a high school tennis team was winning its first-ever state title.

That was in the fall of 1972. Four presidents have called the White House home since then, Spitz's comeback is sputtering, Sampras is the reigning U.S. Open champion. And the Colorado tennis team? It's still winning the state tennis title—year after year after year. The streak has gone on so long that not one of the players on the present championship team was born when it began.

Cherry Creek High, a school of 3,000 students in suburban Denver's upscale Greenwood Village, now has won a national record 19 consecutive boys' state tennis championships, eclipsing the old mark of 13 straight, set between 1972 and '84 by University Liggett High in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. The last time Cherry Creek lost so much as a dual match to another Colorado school was in September 1970, 233 matches ago. During their 19-title run, Cherry Creek players have won 82 of 120 singles and doubles state championships and better than 95% of their individual regular-season matches.

"It's tremendous," says Harold Aarons, director of junior competition for the Colorado Tennis Association. "What is so incredible is getting up for every match over all that period of time. There's a lot of ways to lose a tennis match, but they have always been up to the challenge."

The man who first taught Cherry Creek's tennis team to respond to large challenges was Rich Hillway, who came on the scene in 1969. A local club tennis pro as well as a ninth-grade social studies teacher, Hillway had the advantage of having coached many of his Bruins long before they got to high school. Hillway developed a reputation as a pied piper. His hallmark was to encourage the youngsters to have fun, and he became the community's point man as scores of local kids got turned on to tennis.

"The key to our teams back then was what we did with the kids other than the top ones," says Hillway, who left Cherry Creek High in 1980 and is now the tennis director at a Colorado Springs country club. "The main thing for the team was that we tried to have all the kids enjoy tennis and tried to help them whether they were good players or not."

In an early version of cross-training, Hillway matched his tennis squad against the junior varsity soccer team in soccer, the sophomore basketball team in basketball and the girls' volleyball team in volleyball. Suddenly, it seemed as if every boy at Cherry Creek High wanted to be on the tennis team. Hillway tried to accommodate them. By 1976 his tennis army had grown to nearly 100 youngsters, almost all of whom got to compete in interscholastic competition on the varsity, second varsity or junior varsity level. There were 152 players in the program when Hillway departed Cherry Creek.

"Unquestionably there are two factors in our continued success," says current coach Tom Bancroft, who has maintained Hillway's come-one, come-all approach. "One is, we get good players. But the big reason for the consistent winning is the internal competition that exists on our ladder." Bancroft, like Hillway and the three other coaches in between, runs a no-cut program that last fall had 125 players enrolled. Making the varsity 11 is tougher than competing against most other schools. Daily practice, says the current No. 1, Jeff Salzenstein, "is like a mini-state tournament."

"In the top five or 10 teams in the state there are maybe 20 to 40 kids fighting it out for the top 11 spots on the team," says Aarons. "At Cherry Creek there are more than 100. And that happens because there are that many kids playing in the community." A massive program such as Cherry Creek's not only gives recreational opportunities to more kids, it also provides the team's coaches with an occasional diamond in the rough, a player who needed time and nurturing for his game to develop. Last fall's No. 4 doubles player, senior Brian Potts, climbed all the way from No. 99 in singles as a freshman to No. 11. "He's an example of how a kid can progress just by taking advantage of what's available here," says Bancroft.

Aarons says Cherry Creek's players have been, by and large, "no more athletically gifted than anybody else's, but they work at it harder. Part of the success is mystique and tradition, but it's the work ethic, too." That ethic, coupled with the very deep and very competitive intra-squad system, has produced an amazing number of athletes with astonishing individual records. There are 70 state singles or doubles champs among Cherry Creek alumni, and 33 of them have graduated with perfect records. Brian Sullivan, class of '77, never tasted defeat in high school play and finished at 76-0. Sullivan, in fact, dropped only one set in four years. Craig Fallin, '88, was 61-0 for the Bruins and pulled off the ultimate whitewash as a senior when he not only double-bageled an opponent 6-0, 6-0, but didn't lose a point. That stands as the only golden match in Colorado prep history. John Benson, '77, was probably the finest player ever to come out of Cherry Creek, though he finished with a middling 75-1 record. Colorado's only four-time state singles champion (1973-76), Benson competed on the pro circuit for four years, winning three Grand Prix doubles titles in the early '80s.

Since Cherry Creek's best-ever player was but a journeyman pro, the question is inescapable: How good is the team on a national level? Well, it's not at the very top; an entry from California or Florida would be favored in a national tournament. "Nationwide, Colorado is about middle of the pack," says one of Bancroft's assistant coaches, Dave Benson, who played singles on Cherry Creek's first state championship team and is John's older brother. "During the 19-year streak, we've probably had only one team—1976—that could have had even a chance of being national champion."

Colorado just doesn't have the population base the sunshine states enjoy. And there's another, more esoteric factor: It's difficult to develop an all-court game at altitude. When balls fly around so freely, players tend to play with an end-the-point-quickly, serve-and-volley style. It gets them into trouble when they venture outside their elevated home turf.

This fact doesn't diminish Cherry Creek's accomplishment a bit; among its high-country brethren, it ranks the highest. For now, anyway. If last autumn's campaign is any indication, the competition is closing in on Cherry Creek.

"When we started the season, Wheat Ridge High was far better than us," says Kirk Price, Bancroft's other assistant coach. "But our kids wouldn't accept that. They just didn't want to be on the team that loses."

Wheat Ridge, a crosstown rival, boasted three nationally ranked players and was picked No. 1 in the state in preseason polls. But when Salzenstein beat Wheat Ridge ace Chris Jenkins, No. 35 among U.S. 18-and-unders, in a September dual meet—pacing the Bruins to a 5-2 win—the old pecking order was reestablished.

Salzenstein, a lefthanded junior, may eventually supplant John Benson as the alltime premier player from Cherry Creek. "He's the plow horse that pulls our wagon," says Bancroft. Salzenstein hardly looks the part; he stands 5'7" and weighs only 120 pounds. But his record is as big as he is small: He was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the 12-and-unders, has won four national age-group championships in singles and doubles, and as a sophomore won the high school singles state championship. By the time he reached the finals of last October's state tournament in Pueblo, he had run his three-year Cherry Creek record to 55-5.

But there Jenkins got his revenge. In a grueling three-set match, he handed Salzenstein his only loss of the season, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. That put the Bruins, and their streak, on the precipice.

Cherry Creek was represented in all seven finals—three singles and four doubles. Wheat Ridge had qualified in the singles brackets and in the No. 1 doubles. Wheat Ridge proceeded to win all four of those final-round matches. Cherry Creek was, of course, runner-up in those four categories, and its second, third and fourth doubles teams came through with wins. When the dust cleared and the math was done, Cherry Creek's three wins and four seconds beat Wheat Ridge's four firsts by a hair's breadth. Depth had done it. The streak had survived.

"I hate to think about that," says Salzenstein when asked about next fall. "I'm probably going to have to win next year for us to win the 20th state title." He's already worrying about a match that's months away. The streak, glorious as it is, is a heavy burden for each new team of Cherry Creek Bruins to bear. And each year, the burden gains a little more weight.



Salzenstein (third from left) and Bancroft (far right) are among the latest banner-bearers.

John Gegner lives in Denver and is a stringer for the Rocky Mountain News.