During this difficult time, spring sport seniors unfortunately will not have the opportunity to compete for the last time, or be fully recognized for contributions and individual accomplishments. Among those accomplished seniors is tennis player Jake Zalenski.
Sometimes, passion starts with something as simple as your parents introducing a pastime to you. Jake Zalenski ’20 began playing tennis from a young age with his mother growing up in Canton, Ohio. The two would go to nearby courts every day in the summer, and Zalenski fell in love with the sport. His passion for the game continued to grow as he started making friends through camps and casual rallies. He began playing tennis with increasing frequency and the sport soon consumed his life.
When it came time to make a college decision, Zalenski looked at a large number of schools with similar academic rigor to Kenyon. His visit to Gambier was what really sealed the deal. “I got to come to Kenyon and meet the team and it was those older guys on the team that influenced me to come there. I could see myself fitting in well, I liked the culture of the team, and that was honestly probably the biggest reason I ended up choosing Kenyon… I just loved the community aspect.”
After arriving in Gambier in 2016, many of the players that persuaded him to attend Kenyon became his role models. The seniors, including Mike Roberts ’17, Peter Hazlett ’17 and Tristan Kaye ’17, emphasized team chemistry. Hazlett quickly became one of Zalenski’s best friends off the court. “He always put a lot of emphasis on the team being close off the court and supporting each other on the court,” Zalenski said. “He’s always been someone I try to model my leadership after.” Zalenski’s chemistry with his teammates would continue throughout his Kenyon career, and he credits those connections as a major reason for his success.
On the court, Zalenski hit the ground running immediately. With a 20-10 singles record in his first year, he earned the NCAC Newcomer of the Year award. The Lords won their 11th consecutive NCAC conference championship that year and Zalenski led the team to a win over Kalamazoo College (Mich.) in the round of 32 of the NCAA Team Championship, winning both his singles and doubles matches.
The following season, Zalenski improved on an impressive first campaign, going 22-7 in singles play, which earned him the NCAC Player of the Year award. Not only did his team win another conference championship, but Zalenski earned a spot in the NCAA Singles Championship, which consists of the top 32 singles players in Division III. Kenyon made another run to the round of 16 of the NCAA Team Tournament, with Zalenski winning his singles match in the team’s victory over the University of Mary Washington (Va.).
It was hard to imagine how Zalenski could improve in 2018-19, but he in fact did just that. In what unfortunately proved to be his final full season for the Lords, Zalenski won 20 of 24 singles matches. Yet again, he led his team to the NCAA Tournament, as the team recorded a 19-4 record. In a victory over Johns Hopkins University (Md.), Zalenski did not lose a set in two matches. He won his second consecutive NCAC Player of the Year award, and again reached the NCAA Singles Tournament. Despite losing in the first round, he finished the year as the 15th-ranked singles player in the country.
Zalenski’s final list of accolades is astonishing. In only three full seasons, Zalenski earned a 79-24 overall singles record, three All-American honors, three All-NCAC first team appearances, NCAC Newcomer of the Year, two NCAC player of the year awards, two NCAA Singles Tournament appearances, three NCAC titles and three trips to the NCAA Team Tournament round of 16.
Despite these accomplishments in the college game, Zalenski’s perception of his own play was always secondary to that of the team. Despite earning a spot in the NCAA D-III Singles Championship in consecutive years, he failed to win a match either year. Zalenski discussed how he struggled to find his rhythm at the individual tournament. “I always found it difficult in those situations because I kind of realized in those moments that playing with my team was what brought out the best in me, in terms of my personality and my game,” Zalenski said. “I was really fortunate to have those opportunities to go as an individual, but it’s definitely tough and it definitely made me appreciate my team a lot.” Despite his struggles, Zalenski will certainly miss the opportunity to compete in this year’s individual play and appreciates his experience over the last couple of years.
To no surprise, Zalenski’s fondest memory of Kenyon tennis is not one of individual success, but of a team triumph at the 2018 NCAC Championships. Zalenski was a sophomore and the team was set to face a Denison University team that was expected to really challenge Kenyon, who had won the conference the previous 11 years. He remembers fondly the team’s ability to embrace that adversity. A lot of the team played at the top of their game; it was a moment that really stands out to him as the peak of the Lords’ performances.
In addition to Zalenski’s strong bonds with his teammates, he attributes his development to the philosophy of Kenyon’s head coach, Scott Thielke. Zalenski said of Thielke’s lessons, “I think just having that confidence, just knowing that it’s not the end of the world to lose, allowed me to play a lot more freely, allowed me to take chances in my game. And it paid off.” Thielke’s confidence in Zalenski and numerous other players over the years has brought Kenyon’s tennis program lasting success. The Lords have earned 18 NCAC titles in 25 seasons with Thielke at the helm, including a current streak of 13 consecutive championships. Thielke, who also coaches the Kenyon women’s tennis team, announced earlier this month that he will be stepping down as coach of the Lords.
Zalenski considers himself incredibly fortunate to have played his entire career under Thielke. “What Scott did very well was just believing in his players and I think he saw the opportunity in that. He was never someone who was going to be all over you. It was kind of on the guy to get things done and I always really liked that. I think that’s something I’ve learned I like in a leader, and that I want to have in myself.”
The three time All-American’s leadership and character will surely be missed at Kenyon. Coach Thielke said of Zalenski, “Kenyon College and especially the Lords Tennis Team will miss Jake’s presence on campus and the court. We will never be able to replace all his great qualities. Along with one of the greatest senior classes ever, Jake, Austin, Luis and Patrick will all be missed.”
After graduating from Kenyon, Zalenski will begin a job in consulting at ZS Associates in Chicago. A double major in math and economics, Zalenski has immense gratitude for his professors, who contributed greatly to his growth as an individual throughout his time at Kenyon.
He especially appreciated how his professors valued him both as a student and as an athlete. “We don’t have to just know somebody in one regard. So many of my professors were engaged in both my athletics and academics. And that just brought a whole new level of understanding and appreciation from the professors which I always really liked,” he said.
Zalenski’s message to next year’s team is to be confident in taking risks and making changes to their games, and he wishes the class of 2024 the best of luck in the upcoming academic year.