After an unpredictable high school career, there were no more surprises for Derek Distelrath. Only a signature.
The senior signed his letter of intent to play tennis for Western Michigan University during a ceremony at St. Clair High School on Nov. 12.
“Looking back on it, it was a huge, crazy journey between my freshman year and senior year,” Distelrath said.
That’s an understatement. Although his wild ride with tennis began well before high school.
Originally a three-sport athlete, Distelrath chose to pursue tennis over basketball and baseball when he was 12. But there was one problem. Tennis courts aren’t abundant in St. Clair.
“It’s hard when you get to that level,” said Laura Distelrath, Derek’s mother. “Because you have to make so many sacrifices to drive down to Oakland County to get your hitting.”
That trek wasn’t just once or twice a week. It was every day. Still, at least Oakland County is in Michigan. Many of the tournaments in which Derek played were out of state.
“We would leave on a Thursday or Friday and be gone until Sunday, Monday, sometimes Tuesday,” Laura said. “It didn’t leave a lot of time for sleep and social.”
Ally Kennedy was with the Distelraths on many of those trips. Having grown up next door, she’s known the family since before Derek was born.
Kennedy, who also played tennis at St. Clair, coached Distelrath before matches. One moment sticks out in particular.
“There was a point when he was in the (12-year-old) tournaments and I was helping him and watched him play,” Kennedy said.
That’s when she noticed something.
“I just told him, ‘If you’re at the net and you’re teeing it right back at them, why don’t you angle it off and end the point?'”
Distelrath quickly made the adjustment. It worked.
“After that I was like, ‘Oh (he’s) very coachable, he wants to win,'” Kennedy said. “He really took from off there.”
A few years later, he landed on St. Clair’s varsity team as the lone freshman. Dave Clutts, who coached tennis at the school for 24 years (including Derek’s first two seasons), speaks highly of his former player.
“I knew when Derek was coming on he had really big aspirations to play Division I tennis,” Clutts said at the event held for Derek’s signing. “People don’t realize how mental this sport is. Not only just the matches that you play, but the journey that you take to get where you wanna go.”
Distelrath’s journey changed dramatically during his sophomore year.
In November 2019, he finished as the runner-up in No. 1 singles at the state finals for Division 3. A few months later, Derek won a USTA Midwest Level 2 tournament on Feb. 17, 2020. That victory earned him a spot in the national tournament.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic.
“When I look back on that, it really changed my whole life,” Distelrath said. “I was playing the best tennis of my life, feeling really good and then everything got shut down.”
The tournament for which he’d spent his entire career preparing was canceled.
“For a kid who’s worked his whole life for that, what do you make of that?,” Laura Distelrath said. “It’s nothing he’s done, but it’s not coming back.”
Tennis clubs closed as well. So Distelrath practiced on outdoor courts in the snow. One day, it started to hail as he played.
“It was the most bizarre tennis experience of my entire life,” he said.
To discourage people from gathering, nets were removed from many public tennis courts (including those at St. Clair High School). Distelrath was even told by a police officer that he’d have to pay a fine if he didn’t leave. So he left.
But unlike the early stages of his career, there was nowhere Distelrath could go. Courts in neighboring counties were off limits as well.
“It really changed everything,” Distelrath said. “It changed the path I was taking.”
“It was hard,” Laura said. “It was kind of like a slow bleed.”
That feeling continued into the summer. Distelrath broke his wrist shortly before his junior season. It was a devastating blow at a crucial time of his career.
“That’s when recruiting matters the most,” his mother said. “And it all went away.”
With the pandemic raging, Distelrath knew he couldn’t visit with any college coaches. Now, he couldn’t even play.
“(He) needed to take a little break from the sport,” Clutts said. “And I think that was the best thing that happened. Derek got refocused, he fell in love with the game again (and) he found passion again.”
Laura Distelrath believes that happened at the Port Huron Tennis House, where he teaches young kids how to play the game.
“Whenever he has a free moment, he’s up at the Tennis House volunteering or coaching,” Laura said. “That’s his place where he’s reminded, ‘OK, this is why I love this game.'”
Distelrath ended his junior season on a high note. He made it to the state semifinals in No. 1 singles. As a senior this year, he finished in the Division 3 semifinals once again.
“I’m tougher because of (the adversity),” Derek said. “I’m where I’m at now, healthier, both physically and mentally, because of it. I’m really proud of myself for that and thankful for everybody that has helped me get through it.”
Where he’s at now remains St. Clair. But he’ll be headed to Kalamazoo in the summer. But this time, he won’t have to drive hundreds of miles or practice in the snow.
“That’s kind of been a rarity in my life,” Distelrath said. “To be able to walk 30 seconds to the courts and go hit with kids where we can push each other to be better. Before it was an hour and a half away to go do that.”
Distelrath was joined by family, friends and teammates as he signed his letter of intent. It was a special moment to commemorate an extraordinary career at St. Clair.
“This is not the pinnacle,” Clutts said. “This is just the beginning of his next chapter.”
Contact Brenden Welper at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrendenWelper.