D.J. Pekoc thinks about May 23, 2014, probably more than he should.
Anyone in his shoes would. For all the wins the cat-quick senior has collected as a tennis standout at Corvallis – he has two state doubles titles to his credit – it is his loss in the State A singles final last year in Billings that remains foremost in his mind.
“I was doing well and cramps ended up killing me in the end,” he said. “I was up 6-2, 4-0 – two games away. It was definitely a bummer. But there’s a lesson to learn from everything.”
Almost from the time he left Billings, Pekoc has pointed to this year’s State A meet on May 21-22 in Missoula. Not just in the way he pushes himself to improve on the tennis court but in the way he handles himself off the court.
“You know my heart really broke for him that day,” Corvallis coach Chris Maul-Smith said of last year’s state singles final. “We were trying to figure out a way to help his body come back, but also realizing that there was too much depleted from those muscles. It was heart-wrenching to watch, crushing to him.
“But at the same time I saw a huge amount of courage as he hobbled around and went after shots and you knew his muscles were going to cramp. I felt bad for him but I was also really proud of him. He decided he wanted to take the bus home after the match and on the trip home we talked a lot.”
Pekoc made it a personal mission to resolve his cramping issues. He quit taking Mountain Dew onto the court for each match, a policy that has also been adopted by the Blue Devils program: No caffeine on match day.
Still, Pekoc’s health issue persisted beyond that sweltering day in Billings.
“I ended up going to a doctor because the cramping continued out of high school season play,” he said. “I ended up getting some supplements and stuff to help. Then I started doing a lot of pre-match stretching and working on better nutrition.”
The changes have paid off. Pekoc won the Western Montana Open 18-and-under boys’ singles last July in Missoula, fighting through energy-sapping heat. This spring he has yet to be seriously tested in singles and recently steamrolled over three Class AA opponents in Missoula.
“He is so motivated right now,” said Mitchell Decker, Pekoc’s close friend and hitting partner in practice. “He shows up to practice every day and he's taking the actions of a leader.
“He’s always wanting to improve his game. He’s a powerful player and he’s going to run me for as long as I let him. He's an aggressive player but he’s not afraid to play a little defense if he needs to.”
Pekoc’s advanced game has garnered attention from college coaches. Next year he will play tennis for NCAA Division III Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma, Washington.
“He practices like he plays,” Maul-Smith said of his senior, who has been working especially hard on his serve and volleys. “He considers all aspects of his game and his attitude is there’s no difference between practice and a match.
“And one thing I like is he’s very gracious in sharing his skills with other people on the team in terms of being a leader and a captain. He welcomes everybody to the court and takes time to encourage others. While he is preparing for state as a player, he has also helped bring on the underclassmen.”
Pekoc is no stranger to the state tournament stage. Besides his success in tennis, he played an integral role on the Blue Devils’ State A champion soccer team last fall.
Soccer has helped Pekoc improve his endurance and footwork, complementing a fighting spirit that has been prevalent from the start. As for his insatiable desire to improve, Pekoc will tell you his friends planted that seed long ago.
“I moved here in first grade and started tennis when I was 10 and tennis was a big thing back then,” he recalled. “I had a lot of friends that played, like my (state) doubles partner Bridger Walczynski and Mitchell Becker, who also played for Corvallis.
“We’d always just go down and hit, always traveled to tournaments together. I’m younger than them so I wanted to get better so I could play in their division. They’re both assistant coaching this year for Corvallis. It’s a good advantage in practice. It’s really great to get some really good difficult matches in so I don’t get rusty.”
Maul-Smith has seen a change in Pekoc’s game this season.
“He’s always been a very confident player, but his level of confidence right now is I’ve got all aspects under control,” the coach said. “Bridger and Mitchell can really push him, so it’s nice to have them support the team.
“D.J. is willing to play an all-court game. He has the power when he needs it but then here comes the drop shot, the angle, the serve, both flat and kick serve. He’s willing to mix things up so when he sees what an opponent is doing he will make an adjustment.”
Should he make the state singles final a second year in a row, there’s a chance Pekoc will face the same boy that beat him in three sets last year. Jeff Miller of Havre is intent on defending his crown after outlasting Pekoc by a score that might best be described as bizarre, 3-6, 7-5, 2-3, default.
The part of that day largely overlooked is Pekoc’s impressive semifinal win over the two-time defending state champion, Dillon Meyer of Billings Central, by the score of 6-2, 6-3. That victory, perhaps more than any other, gives Pekoc reason to believe he can climb to the top of the mountain in May.
“It would be great,” he offered. “Just to have a title in both doubles and singles, because that’s what a lot of colleges are looking for is someone who can play both. It would also help with our team points.
“The pressure is a little different than doubles. I mean I had a great partner (Bridger Walczynski) and whenever I’d double-fault or get into a little slump, he was always there to pick me up and get my head straight. Singles you have to do that yourself, although I do have friends cheering me on and helping me get my head out.”
Regardless of what transpires the rest of the season, you can bet Pekoc will take the same work ethic and likable personality to college. The Blue Devils' loss will be Pacific Lutheran’s gain.
“He’s like a brother to me and around me he’s absolutely hilarious,” Decker confided. “He’s really a great guy.”