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Peck Marks The Spot For Army Tennis

The following article on head women's tennis coach Paul Peck appeared in examiner.com on May 11, 2010, and was written by Ron Mergenthaler.

For Paul Peck, the stereotype seems to come up a little short. Officer Candidate School. Platoon leader. Commander of a field artillery unit during Operation Desert Storm. Retired as an Army Major. Now at West Point coaching….women’s tennis.

Come again?

“As a kid I played well at all sports, but my sister was a ranked player and she used me as her practice partner,” he said. “I started practicing more. In high school I played football, but I was still better at tennis.”

He was a regionally ranked junior player in the Midwest, eventually ending up at the University of Illinois, but he admits now he was not a Big 10-caliber player. However, that did not temper his love for the sport. He finally arrived at West Point as a member of the physical education department, and when he had the chance to take over as coach 15 years ago, he leapt at the chance. Since taking over, the Black Knights have won at least 15 matches 13 years in a row; recently won their sixth straight Patriot League title; and finished the season having not lost a league match for seven years. Friday they will be in Los Angeles to play UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He doesn’t exude phony optimism about his team’s chances.

“They have outstanding players, from across the country and internationally,” he said. “We’re big underdogs. But the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

It’s the Patriot League’s low national ranking that invariably results in Army having to take on such a strong first-round opponent, and UCLA is the seventh-ranked team in the tourament. And while Army has made the NCAAs six years in a row, they have yet to get past that first round. Of course, there was no reason to believe the Black Knights could have ever put together the run of success they have in Peck’s tenure. While recruiting, he hasn’t been foolish enough to pursue players he knows have professional tennis aspirations, and, of course, he cannot recruit players outside the United States. Mostly, he’s looking for those who are good, but have room for the kind of coaching he can provide.

“I’m looking for kids who have a lot of athleticism, that don’t have a ranking, but have the potential to improve,” he said. “You see kids in tournaments. A lot of players haven’t reached their plateau. The players are hungry and they want to learn and I can shape them. It’s a double-edged sword. One year you get a good player, then the next another good one and you build on that. We’re not going to get the super superstars. Those players go to schools in Florida and California.”

One of his primary recruiting tools has been the seven-court, state-of-the-art Lichtenberg Tennis Center, built with money donated by Herb Lichtenberg (Class of ’55), his brother Alan (Class of ’51) and the Class of 1955.

“Only the Ivy League schools and some in the Big 10 have something like this,” Peck said. “The benefiits for Army is that we can sell it better [while recruiting].”

And if he finds reason for hope against UCLA, it’s both the mandated attitude inherent in any cadet, plus what he figures is the superior physical shape of his players.

“Mentally, we have West Point, which means never giving up. As any Army officer, your mission is to win,” he said. “Also, since everyone at West Point is in incredible shape. We can be outgunned. But the advantage of a school like ours is nobody’s going to get tired.”

Surely not the coach.
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