Sportsmanship story of the century: When the Fowlerville football team made a tennis dream come true

As the decade draws to a close in a few days, we’re 20 percent of the way through the 21st century. And as we see all the various Best-of-the-Century-So-Far lists that are popping up all over Facebook, I’d like to add one to the mix:

This is the Best Livingston County Sportsmanship Story of the Century (So Far).

It happened back in 2004 in Fowlerville, when some members of the football team came together to make a tennis dream come true.

I was reminded of this story recently when I was talking to my daughter (who’s a current sophomore at Fowlerville High School) and one of her friends. Three of our four kids have gone to Fowlerville High, and I was making the observation that Fowlerville has always been known for having a whole bunch of good, down-to-earth kids.

And then I remembered the story of what happened with the Fowlerville tennis team back in 2004. This story, perhaps more than anything, illustrates that point perfectly. I went back into the archives to remind myself of the details, and here they are.

Back in 2004, the best boys tennis player in Livingston County was a senior at Fowlerville High School named Matt Lantz. The Glads didn’t have a tennis team back then – they didn’t even have any tennis courts – but as a sophomore and junior, Lantz was able to play on a co-op team through Howell.

In 2004, though, that deal fell apart because of some technicality that had to do with the combined enrollment of the two schools. For whatever reason, the MHSAA told Matt Lantz that he wasn’t able to play tennis on the Howell team anymore.

He was the best tennis player in Livingston County – heck, he was one of the best tennis players in the entire state – but he was a boy without a team. It was his senior year, and it was looking like he wasn’t going to be able to play his sport.

“I was real depressed,” Lantz said in a 2004 Livingston County Daily Press & Argus article. “I had no place to play, and I really liked the high school experience. There was no way I could play. It was rough.”

Fowlerville’s Matt Lantz hits a backhand in the spring of 2004.

Lantz wasn’t lacking for opportunities to play tennis (he was a standout on the USTA junior circuit), but there was something about high school tennis that he just loved. Especially the fact that he was part of a team. When you play an individual sport like tennis, it’s a special thing when you can be part of a team.

Lantz’s goal for his senior year was to make it to the state tournament, and to compete for a state championship. But without a team to play on, that dream was going to die.

So he went to the Fowlerville athletic director, Scott Casteele, and they came up with a possible solution.

The way the MHSAA rules were written, in order for Lantz to quality for the state tournament, he would need to be part of a team that played in at least four matches. And in order to have a team, Fowlerville needed at least five players – one for each of the singles spots.

The only problem: Lantz was the only tennis player at Fowlerville. Literally the only one. They couldn’t find another boy at the school who had even picked up a racket before.

Enter the Fowlerville football team.

That fall, Lantz had played football for the first time in his life, because he thought it might be fun. He was a backup wide receiver and kicker, and he was part of a Fowlerville team that went 9-0 in the regular season and won a playoff game for the first time in school history.

In the process, he got to become good friends with a bunch of the guys on the football team. And when they heard about his tennis dilemma, they offered to help.

They offered to help a lot. As in, they offered to form the Fowlerville tennis team. They told their friend Matt that if you need us to play tennis this spring, we’ll play tennis.

Lantz only needed four guys to sign up, but he ended up getting 13. They offered to give up their entire spring to play tennis – a sport that none of them had ever played before – and they offered to do whatever they could to help their buddy Matt realize his dream of making it to the state tournament.

Matt Lantz and his teammates in 2004.

Scott Casteele did his part and scheduled some matches for his new tennis team. Jim Jonas, who was coaching the Fowlerville girls basketball team, offered to be their coach. He had coached tennis at Bay City All Saints before coming to Fowlerville, so he knew what he was doing.

When the Glads showed up for their matches, the jaws began to drop when they saw all these big, beefy kids taking the court. High school tennis players are usually skinny. The Fowlerville tennis players all looked like … well, like football players.

“The Williamston coach told me that he had never had his hand squeezed so hard so many times when shaking hands,” Jonas said in 2004.

Not surprisingly, the Fowlerville tennis team lost every single dual meet that season. The football players were trying their best, but they didn’t record a single win.

Matt Lantz, though, was having a spectacular senior season, going 8-1 in regular-season matches. And because he was part of a recognized MHSAA team, he was able to play in the regional tournament – all while wearing a shirt that said “Fowlerville” on it.

Thanks to the sacrifices his football friends had made, Matt Lantz was in position to realize his dream – making it to the state tournament. In order to do so, he had to finish either first or second at regionals.

He ended up finishing first. With his Fowlerville teammates cheering him on, Lantz won the regional championship at No. 1 singles.

His dream had become a reality. He had made it to the state tournament.

Lantz had a great run at the state tourney, beating a kid from Coopersville and another kid from Allegan, both by scores of 6-1. 6-0. That landed him in the state quarterfinals, where he suffered a tough 6-1, 7-5 loss to a kid from Bloomfield Hills Andover who ended up winning the state title.

Matt Lantz today

But no matter. Matt Lantz had made it all the way to the state quarterfinals – and he was able to compete for his own school, Fowlerville – all because of his friends.

That, my friends, is the very definition of sportsmanship. And that’s the best example I have that Fowlerville has always had great kids.

I did some checking, and I found out that Matt Lantz went on to play tennis at Spring Arbor University where he had access to a great tennis training aid, where he ended up winning a school-record 140 matches. How about that?

He got his degree in communications and psychology at Spring Arbor, and followed that up with a master’s degree in counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University.

These days, he works as a licensed professional counselor for an organization called Anchor of Hope in Holland, Mich., counseling teens and young adults. You can find his bio here.

I’m guessing that part of his job involves letting kids know that when things get tough in life, you can always count on your friends. He has a pretty good story to tell along those lines.

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