Pendleton overcomes injury, wants state title

Posted 10/14/08

Louis Zoldy Zach Pendleton loves playing tennis. Since age 4, the Heritage High School senior has been spending most of his free time on the courts, …

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Pendleton overcomes injury, wants state title


Louis Zoldy

Zach Pendleton loves playing tennis.

Since age 4, the Heritage High School senior has been spending most of his free time on the courts, even competing in tournaments around the country.

In fact, spring is the only season Pendleton takes a break from tennis, to play lacrosse. Otherwise, visit a tennis court in Littleton, especially during the fall season, and you are likely to find him doing what he does best: winning a tennis match.

That love of sport and for helping his Eagles teammates is what made Sept. 27 and the week following so difficult.

On that last Saturday of September, Pendleton and the varsity boys tennis team were participating in a scrimmage at Kent Denver. It was a beautiful fall day with nothing out of the ordinary. That was until Pendleton felt a twinge.

While using his spectacular court coverage to chase down and return a volley, Pendleton’s knee twisted awkwardly. There was, at first, a sharp pain, but that subsided. Pendleton played a couple more games and then retired, knowing something was just not right.

“Even though the sharp pain went away, I could always tell it was there,” he said. “At times I ran to the net and my knee buckled.”

Pendleton resisted going to see a doctor immediately, instead choosing to consult with his massage therapist. But when the therapist suggested he see a doctor, noting that the knee did not feel right, Pendleton gave in.

“I didn’t want to go to a doctor because I was scared they’d tell me I can’t play,” he said.

His fears were justified. “The first day in the doctor’s office, he gave me a no-hope report. He said either I’m out for four weeks or four months.”

The news was devastating, especially given the year Pendleton was having — a turnaround year for him. In year’s past, Pendleton took his tennis very seriously and was more focused on his ranking than just enjoying the sport he’d come to love, which brought a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. But Pendleton has matured.

He is now more focused on the team and has enjoyed mentoring the younger players and seeing their quick ascension, which has Heritage as a whole once again looking to make some noise at states.

“He’s got a good head on his shoulders, and that’s become more of a strength this year,” said head coach Robin Miller. “He’s got a great perspective now, which allows him to just free up and compete.”

With this renewed attitude, Pendleton was having fun with competitive tennis again, and playing better because of it — he posted a 15-1 regular season record, also taking first in two highly competitive tournaments. To see this season of all seasons end prematurely …

Hope resurfaced after an MRI and a consult with a physical therapist confirmed that Pendleton had only sprained his medial collateral ligament. This came with a much better prognosis. Because the ligament was not torn, the possibility of a return would depend on how the young man responded to treatment.

Over the next week, Pendleton worked vigorously in physical therapy to prove his knee was stable enough to return to the courts. With the Region 4 tournament looming, which carried his and his team’s hopes of qualifying for state, Pendleton was determined to get back.

He would get his answer Oct. 6, when he was officially given to OK to finish his final season of high school tennis.

“I worked as hard as I could and it was such a relief to know that I’d be back out here,” Pendleton said. “I think as soon as I was cleared to play that was a real big blessing in disguise. Now I go out with the mentality that I’m on borrowed time.”

The senior is taking advantage of his second chance. Days after being cleared to play, Pendleton took to the courts at Pinehurst Country Club and secured his spot at the 5A state tournament by defeating Miles Peterson of Doherty 6-2, 6-4 in the Region 4 finals, Oct. 9.

After winning the first game, Pendleton’s knee buckled and the senior allowed his mind to wander — but he fought his way through it.

“He has the heart of a lion, and is a true champion in every sense of the word with how he’ll give his all, regardless if his knee is bad,” Miller said.

After the match, Pendleton admitted he has some limitations to his game, but was nonetheless brimming with confidence.

“Trying to run up and stop or make quick movements are some things my muscles haven’t really built back up to respond to real quickly. Some of his lobs were in my reach, too, but I just couldn’t get my feet under me to get them,” he said. “But I feel better now than I did right before I got injured. Right now I’ve got the competitive edge back.”

He will need it for state, which will be Oct. 16-18 at the Gates Tennis Center in Denver. Every opponent will offer a grueling test of physical and mental will, but it’s a challenge a refreshed Pendleton says he is ready for.

“Every year I’ve gone to states with high expectations for myself and not done very well, but that’s because I put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “This year I am just going to relax and play my game.”

And if ever Pendleton finds himself reverting to his old self — taking the game too seriously and letting nuances of the game or his opponent break him from his focus — he will have one little reminder to help keep him grounded.

“I’ll look down and see that brace and remember that two weeks ago I didn’t think I’d be here, so just make the best of it,” he said.

Once state has concluded and with it his high school tennis career, Pendleton will be more focused on things he finds personally important.

Playing college tennis would be fun, but this young man sees enrolling at the U.S. Army’s Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., or the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and serving his country as more important than his serve and volley technique.

“It’s been a dream of mine since I was little,” he said. “Everyone I meet who has been in the military is a great person and has so much character. I look up to them.

“We take a lot of freedoms for granted here, and there are some people who have to step up and defend those freedoms,” he said. “I want to be one of those people.”


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