by Hillel Hoffmann
Danny Loder is on a mission. It’s not about racking up wins on the tennis court, although the Germantown Friends School senior and varsity boys’ tennis team captain’s record of 36 career victories in only three seasons makes him one of the most successful players in the history of the program. Nor is it winning championships, although he’s proud that he and his teammates have led the Tigers to an unprecedented run of three consecutive Friends Schools League crowns (a streak the Class of 2020 won’t have an opportunity to continue with the cancellation of spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Loder likes winning as much as anyone, but he’s shooting for something deeper and longer lasting than wins or trophies. His mission: working tirelessly with his teammates and his coaches to change the image of tennis at GFS by building a team culture that’s as thoughtful, selfless, and ferociously competitive as Loder and all the other team captains who’ve helped make the tennis program into a model of success.
“Building a competitive team culture really matters to me,” said Loder, who will be attending Haverford College in 2020-21 and playing tennis for the Fords. “Not just a winning culture. It’s not just about titles. And it’s not just me. We want to build a culture where every day you’re taking practice seriously, making yourself accountable, hitting more outside of school, working hard to get a higher spot on the team. That competitiveness has made every one of us better players, from the varsity to the junior varsity.”
Cultural change isn’t easy. Standing in the way, Loder said, was the perception that tennis isn’t a serious sport for serious athletes. It didn’t help that despite the contributions of talented, committed players over the years, the GFS boys’ tennis team hadn’t been a contender for a conference championship for a decade by the time Loder and the Class of 2020 moved up from the Middle School to the Upper School in 2017.
That changed almost as soon as Loder and his classmate Henry Ruger (who will be playing tennis at Columbia University in 2020-21) earned spots on the varsity roster as ninth graders. Training and competing with an intensity and maturity that GFS varsity tennis coach Justin Gilmore had seldom seen in players so young, Loder and Ruger led the Tigers to the top of the 2017 FSL regular-season standings for the first time since 2006.
In the FSL playoffs that year, GFS and the Greater Philadelphia tennis community got a taste of the grit that has come to define Loder as a competitor. During his semifinal match against Moorestown Friends, Loder was felled by agonizing cramps and spent the night in the hospital receiving fluids. The good news was that GFS won and advanced. The bad news: The Tigers had only one day to recover before taking on Westtown for the league championship. Yet there was Loder, a day after his discharge, ready for his finals match.
“Honestly, we were all impressed that he had the heart and physical durability just to be there and give his match a try that day,” said Gilmore, a Class of 1996 alumnus of GFS and the tennis program, “but Danny looked completely exhausted in the first set, which he lost 6-0. He had no gas in his tank.”
“Then,” Gilmore said, “something amazing happened.”
Loder started to battle his way back into the match, winning the second set 6-2. By that time, the other matches had been completed, with GFS and Westtown each winning two. The championship would be decided by the result of Loder’s match. As an enormous crowd of teammates, families, faculty, and students gathered to watch the decisive third set, Loder’s body began to fail again. But not his mind. A player who’s as methodical as he is competitive, Loder turned to what Gilmore calls his “grounding rituals” between points to stay focused. With the deciding set tied at three games apiece, Loder won the final three games to take the set, the match, and the league crown as fans mobbed the court. It would be the first of three consecutive seasons in which Loder’s match win in the FSL finals clinched a championship for the Tigers.
“Danny is one of the most focused and mindful tennis players I’ve encountered,” said Gilmore, who also serves as head coach of GFS varsity girls’ tennis, a team that has made four appearances in the FSL finals since he took over in 2014. “He loves what he’s doing, but he also takes it very seriously. I’ve never seen him practice with anything short of enthusiasm and energy, and you can tell he’s always listening and being a role model of how to engage the process of improvement. That’s the kind of guy you want in a program.”
At school the day after that 2017 championship win, Loder walked into the cafeteria, and a group of seniors—many of whom he didn’t even know—rose to give him a standing ovation. Loder and teammates had done more than just win the FSL crown. They’d begun to erode the notion that tennis didn’t matter to the greater GFS community.
“It felt so good,” Loder said. “That was an unforgettable time.”
Over the next two seasons, GFS boys tennis would tear through their schedule like a prairie fire, winning 23 of 25 matches, beating FSL opponents and non-league opponents from the highly regarded Inter-AC alike. It’s been a magical run. And yet it almost didn’t come to pass.
Like many talented young tennis players, Loder had to make a difficult decision when he was in Middle School at GFS. For years he’d been training for many hours a week with private instructors and a cohort of superb players at Legacy Youth Tennis and Education in nearby East Falls.
“I wanted to continue playing outside of school,” Loder said. “A lot of the top kids in the Philadelphia area came to train at Legacy. We were always challenging each other. But in GFS Middle School, academic expectations escalated.”
The choice was simple but cruel: focus on academics or tennis? Some young players with aspirations to play in college or beyond choose to forego conventional schools entirely in order to train year-round at tennis academies. Many stay in school but give up scholastic tennis, instead playing and training solely at private clubs. Others choose high schools that are less academically rigorous to lighten their loads.
Loder chose a different path. He decided to challenge himself by staying at GFS and playing on the school’s tennis team while continuing to train outside of school. He admits it’s been draining at times, but with the support of a coaching staff that was attuned to his needs and his goals, he has been able to find a way to balance all of the demands on his body and his mind — a load that includes playing cello, a life-long pursuit, as well as the responsibilities of being sole captain of the 2020 team (the latter is a unique challenge during a time of social distancing, but the team is staying connected digitally and training hard).
Was it worth it? “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Loder said. “I’ve loved being part of a team, especially at GFS, where we have an extremely supportive and energetic team atmosphere. We’re not like other tennis teams, where you see players on their phones after their matches are over. It’s been so fun.”
There are few things that a GFS student could say that would make GFS Director of Athletics Katie Bergstrom Mark happier. Like all programs at GFS, the athletics are built on a foundation of inclusivity, and that means being mindful of all students’ needs — including those of elite athletes.
“To have Danny stay with our tennis program all the way through from Middle School to Upper School is something that I’m really proud of,” Bergstrom Mark said. “These days so many elite athletes are opting out of high school sports. Danny’s experience proves that, with the coaches and trainers we’ve cultivated, athletes of his caliber can have their time well spent here. They can grow as players and leaders in a healthy and balanced way, blossom academically, have a ton of fun, and — in the case of elite players like Danny, Henry, and many others — find a path to competing at the college level.”
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