Written by Terry Pluto for Cleveland.com
How do you tell the story of Case Western Reserve’s men’s tennis team being runners-up for the Division III national title in the last two years?
You start with coach Todd Wojtkowski, that’s for sure. Until he arrived at the University Circle campus in 2008, tennis was seldom mentioned in connection with CWRU.
But Wojtkowski will tell you it starts in Germany, where his grandfather was in a concentration camp during World War II. His grandfather was a Polish attorney helping Jewish people escape the Germans. He was caught in a snare with many of them.
“His name was Thaddeus G. Wojtkowski,” said Wojtkowski. “He was listed as a political prisoner of war. Our family has records from Dachau.”
That’s Dachau, the first German concentration camp established in 1933. In the next 12 years, about 43,500 “political prisoners” and 22,100 Jewish people died there, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Wojtkowski has a picture of his father Andrzes in a 1945 edition of Time magazine. The caption reads: Little Andrzes Wojtkowski, 1 1/2 (years old), a displaced person, wasn’t any too pleased to arrive in New York Harbor on one of the coldest days of winter. Sitting uncomfortably on the ice-covered deck of the S.S. Gen. McRae, Andrzes couldn’t wait to take off for his new home.”
Son of a Steel Worker
The next place is Youngstown, where his grandfather settled after World War II.
“My father and my grandfather both worked in the steel mills,” said Wojtkowski. “I was adopted through Catholic Charities when I was 1”
This is the same Todd Wojtkowski who was a multisport star at Youngstown Ursuline. The same guy who got a job as a kid at a Youngstown swim club and while there started to play tennis.
The same young man who was “adopted” by tennis father Keith Vens, who taught him the game to the point where he played in the age 12 nationals.
This was not a country club kid. This was steel mill family.
“Pure blue collar, rust belt,” said Wojtkowski. “My grandfather ended up in Youngstown because he could find a job in the mills. My father worked there, too. He also went to dental school, later becoming a dentist.”
The odds of Wojtkowski going to the University of Toledo and later Ohio State on a tennis scholarship were close to zero. But that happened. When he graduated with degree in middle childhood education, he went looking for a coaching job as a graduate assistant.
Next stop was The Citadel, a military school in Charleston, S.C. While serving as an assistant tennis coach, he earned a Master’s of Business Education Degree. Citadel went to the school’s first NCAA Division I tournament appearance in 2008, Wojtkowski’s second year on the coaching staff.
You Want To Coach Where?
Wojtkowski applied at several Division I schools to be an assistant tennis coach. He heard about CWRU looking for a head coach of its men’s and women’s tennis teams.
“Being from Youngstown, I was familiar with Case,” he said. “I had watched some really good D-3 players. I had respect for the tennis being played by the top teams at that level.”
The Spartans were not one of those teams when Wojtkowski contacted them in 2008. He was able to secure an interview, although the school didn’t seem especially excited about a 25 year old whose only coaching experience was as a graduate assistant at The Citadel.
“I had a master’s in business,” said Wojtkowski. “I broke out my black business suit. I came in with a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, a plan to win a national championship. I had a marketing plan. A fund-raising plan. A recruiting plan.”
It was as if Wojtkowski had spent his life thinking about how to transform a largely unsuccessful tennis program at CWRU into something special. He remembers not being among the three finalists. He assumed he was out, but then got a call.
They brought him back for a second interview – and hired him. That was in 2008.
It took five years, but CWRU made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2013. The Spartans did it again in 2014, 2016, 2021 and 2022.
For the second year in a row, CWRU has finished second in the national Division III NCAA tournament. The Spartans won the 2022 ITA Indoor National Championship in February.
One of the themes of this story is CWRU tennis needed a coach with a Youngstown steel worker’s heart and soul.
“Why not us at Case?” Wojtkowski would ask. “Emory is in our league (United Athletic Association). They have been a power in Division III for years.”
CWRU was powered this year by James Hopper and Jonathan Powell, who won the national doubles championship. Those two had a career 30-6 record in doubles play.
“Hopper is an amazing story,” said Wojtkowski. “He was cut from his varsity high school team as a freshman. He made the team as a sophomore. … It wasn’t until his senior year that he came into his own.”
Hopper said he grew six inches between his freshman and sophomore years. He weighed only 145 pounds as a junior. It wasn’t until his senior season that he began to fill out physically to 175 pounds on his 6-foot frame.
Wojtkowski knew Hopper’s coach (Glenn Michibata, who once played at Wimbledon) at Montgomery High in New Jersey. While Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, they do recruit – selling their program and the academics. Academic aid and money based on need also is available.
Wojtkowski had the early word. But as Hopper’s senior year came to an end, elite schools such as Princeton, Cornell and Columbia began recruiting him.
There was a big tournament near the end of Hopper’s final season. Wojtkowski left his Solon home at 3 a.m. to drive to New Jersey, watch the match, then return home that night. He wanted Hopper to know CWRU was there for him first – and right up to the end.
Hopper committed and has become one of the best players in CWRU history. The junior also has a 3.55 grade point average in biochemical engineering with a minor in business management.
“I really wasn’t going anywhere else,” said Hopper. “I contacted a lot of schools, most didn’t even respond to my text. Coach Todd did. I could tell he really cared about me.”
The Elephant Stairs
The 37-year-old Wojtkowski is driven. Hopper and teammate Ansh Shah talk up running and up and down Murray and Cedar hills near the CWRU campus.
“Then there are the Elephant Stairs,” said Hopper. “It’s about 100 stairs, almost straight up. Almost everything in our practices is a competition, and the losers have to run extra.”
Shah was named the University Athletic Association Rookie Men’s Player of the Year. He also is the first five-star recruit to come to CWRU. He also graduated Summa Cum Laude from Hinsdale Central High in Oak Brook, Illinois.
“I picked Case because they have a pre-medicine undergraduate program,” he said. “Basically, it’s a road right into medical school. I’ll spend eight years at Case, play tennis for four of those.”
So Shah is not afraid of hard work. But like nearly every new player at CWRU, he was stunned by the Elephant Stairs and all the other demands.
“We get up early and practice at 7 a.m.,” Shah said. “Once you get used to it, you understand what we’re doing. We practice hard and early so that we have the rest of the day for school. We take pride in working harder than any other team.”
Players go to CWRU knowing it will be demanding – on the court and in the classroom. They know the school doesn’t have all the same glittering facilities as some D-3 powers. It’s part of the attraction: Do it the hard way, it will make you stronger.
“I never met anyone who cares as much about tennis and his players as Coach Todd does,” said Hopper. “It’s what he does 365 days a year. He cares about us as people, too. His intensity, it rubs off on you.”
The First Generation Approach
Wojtkowski said 14 of his 18 players either were born outside the U.S. or come from “first-generation families, like I did.”
Because his grandfather and father began their life in America battling the heat and smog in the Youngstown mills, Wojtkowski was able to pursue his tennis dreams.
Some examples of those first-generation families on the team are brothers Chaitanya and Vishwa Aduru from India. There is Alay Mahenthiran’s family from Sri Lanka. Michael’s Sutanto’s family is from Indonesia.
National doubles title winners Powell (Philippines) and Hopper (England) also have recent roots outside the U.S.
Shah’s parents are both from India. His father is a physical therapist, his mother was an engineer until she joined the business his father has built.
“I’m the first-born here,” he said. “I know they went through a lot in India to come here. I do think the first-generation idea is a part of our team’s culture. We know our parents came here to give us an amazing opportunity – work hard, don’t take it for granted.”
CWRU’s team has a 3.85 GPA, according to Wojtkowski. He said there are three basic majors for players on the team: Finance, engineering and pre-med.
In the summer, Wojtkowski gives tennis lessons and runs camps at the Cleveland Racquet Club. He said he has turned down offers to coach at several Division I schools because of his commitment to the Cleveland area and CWRU.
“It’s a pride thing,” he said. “We’ve done things this year no one could imagine when I first came here, because hard work and discipline are first-nature to our players. We take a lot of pride in that.”