The following article on senior men's tennis player Rick Houghton was featured in the Pointer View on Apr. 16, 2009 and was written by Eric Bartelt.
It’s the best time of the year for a collegiate male tennis athlete; it’s the time where the league championships arrive and the drive to reach the NCAA Championships climaxes.
Army men’s tennis finished its league schedule April 11 with a 5-2 match victory over Bucknell to finish with a 4-2 record in the Patriot League. Now the team is looking forward to earning its first Patriot League championship since 2006 as they host the PL Championships at West Point Friday-Sunday at the Malek Tennis Center.
It’ll be a big weekend ahead for Firsties Phil Muhawi and Sean Harris, who’ll look to get another taste of success they haven’t felt since their plebe year. However, another firstie is craving the same success for his classmates, although he won’t be able to make a difference first handon the court.
Firstie Rick Houghton has gone through the same trials and tribulations that four years brings to a varsity athlete, but he’s only been healthy enough to play in one of those years and two matches total.
The Sewickley, Pa., native was part of a high school state championship team and had great individual credentials upon his arrival to West Point, but a knee injury has been the bane of his existence since his plebe year.
An injury to his left knee where the patella tendon inserts to the bone below the knee has kept him out of the lineup for three years. He still practices with the team, he’s had moments where his knee has felt great, but the knee has never fully recovered as scar tissue remains even after his 2006 knee surgery.
"It’s been really tough. As hard as it is to want to compete, I try to do the best I can to contribute in practice and during matches as a coach on the court (to help the team)," Houghton said. "It’s frustrating; I’m not going to lie because I’ve been playing tennis my whole life. It’s something that I love and even though I’ve had some setbacks with injuries I’m still a part of the game and hope to be a part of it for the rest of my life."
Houghton said the pounding on the hard courts has kept his knee at less than 100 percent, but he knows he couldn’t be fully successful to the team in his condition.
"When I get out on the court there’s something about the lateral movement, the tennis specific stuff, that aggravates the knee and it sets me back," Houghton said. "Right now, I’m rehabbing and doing everything I can to not only get back onto the court, but to get healthy and ready for graduation."
Houghton makes no excuses with his injured knee and is confident that he’ll be able to become an officer in the Army once he graduates.
"I’m very confident that through rehab and the great medical staff we have here on post that I’ll be fine and ready to go into the Army," Houghton said.
In the meantime, as the team prepares to host the Patriot League Championships, Houghton continues to mentor the younger players and is a confidant to his classmates. He’s on the court everyday to hit balls to his teammates and shows up to every practice on time to show his commitment to the team and to set the example.
"Setting a good example and being there for the younger guys, especially the plebes, is really important," Houghton, who receivedthe team’s unsung hero award last year for his selfless dedication to the team, said. "I try to do the best job I can. It’s important to show them a good example. I have a strong relationship with everyone on the team and I think they’re a great group of guys, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
"(My classmates) Phil, Sean and I go back to basic training," he added. "They’re great guys and great tennis players. I’ve gone through this whole experience with them, so I feel I have a close bond with those guys."
Close bonds have been a big part of Houghton’s life. He shares a close bond with his siblings, sisters Anne and Kate and brother John, all of whom played or are playing tennis at the U.S. Military Academy.
Anne is currently a yearling and the No. 1 singles and No. 2 doubles player on the women’s team that is undefeated in its conference (7-0) and has won 19 of its last 20 matches. John was on the men’s team and a team captain in 2007, during Rick’s first two years at the academy.
"It’s fantastic to see my little sister blossom into a great tennis player and overcome knee surgery," Houghton said. "With my brother, John, it was funny because I thought I spent a lot of time with him at home, but I ate every meal with him here. I saw him at practice every day and we often went out together and I would go hang out in his room. We really got close in those two years."
Each one of his siblings has gone through knee surgeries and they have shared in his experience and have been there to help him vent his frustrations.
"My Family has been an incredible part of that cathartic experience and so has the team because I let them know exactly what’s going on," Houghton said. "I try to be realistic about what I can do and what I can accomplish."
Army men’s tennis coach Jim Poling has found it tough to see Houghton go through what he has during his collegiate tennis career, but still feels he has been a great influence on the team.
"He’s a great kid. He’ll tutor anybody who needs help," Poling said. "He’ll stay at practice to feed balls to people even though he knows he’s not going to compete ... he’s a tremendous asset to us."
While Poling knows there was a lot of untapped potential in Houghton as an athlete, he also saw Rick produce as a student where he earned a 4.0 GPA and a Rotary Scholarship that will take him to Oxford University in the fall to earn a master’s in American History.
"He’s done so much here with the opportunities given to him," Poling said. "He’s been to Poland to study history. He’s been to France for a semester. He’s a quality individual and somebody you want to have around you.
"He’s very positive, too, because no matter what was happening the whole time, he was always positive about life," he added.
The future Air Defense officer, the same branch in which his brother serves, can’t wait to have an impact on the current generation of Soldiers after his year at Oxford. He’s enthused to become a platoon leader for a Patriot Battery in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We’re certainly in a changing time, and it’s a scary time because we don’t know what the future is going to bring," Houghton explained. "I’m excited and a little scared because there is a lot of responsibility with being an officer. But, I think with the training I received here at West Point that I’m ready for that challenge."
Nevertheless, before Houghton receives his diploma and becomes an officer, there is still one more river to cross for his team.
Houghton’s biggest moment on the court was his only career victory in 2006 versus St. Joseph’s Brent Kahl, but his best career moment was experiencing the PL Championship that same year and celebrating on Army’s home court with his brother.
His hope is that there’s one more championship in waiting during his Army career.
"Winning the Patriot League was definitely the highlight of my tennis experience," Houghton said. "We’ve had some great matches since then although winning that Patriot League championship was the best thing I’ve ever experienced in sports.
"I think the team’s chances are great," he added. "I’m confident that Sean and Phil will lead the team. I’m excited to see who else will step up and be the difference maker. I love this team and believe anyone has the ability to step up ... I think our chances are good to win the Patriots at home."