Matt Kulma just couldn’t seem to find a groove in the first set of his sectional championship match against LaSalle-Peru’s Reo Hammers on Saturday.
The DeKalb senior felt the timing on his shots were off and lost the opening set, 6-1. But through four years of experience in tough matches, Kulma knew how to forge a comeback. His teammates even gave him added motivation by mentioning between sets that a win would give DeKalb the sectional team title, something the Barbs hadn’t accomplished since 1996.
“I knew it was my senior year and I was trying to go for the fourth consecutive sectional championship win,” Kulma said. “In the second set, I changed around and started pumping myself up a little bit.”
Kulma rallied for a 1-6, 6-4, 6-1 win to secure his sectional title and qualify for this weekend’s state tournament for the fourth consecutive season.
First-year coach Michael O’Neill was anything but surprised when Kulma rallied from his opening-set loss. He had seen his top singles player do the same thing in his semifinal match and knew Kulma was a grinder.
“That’s basically how Matt operates, he never gives up. He’s got a great work ethic,” O’Neill said. “He practices harder than everybody else.”
Kulma plays Althoff Catholic junior Joey Bartholemew in the first round today at Rolling Meadows. He’s had mixed success in the state tournament the three previous years, but would like to make his deepest run in his final season.
“Last year I made it to the second day,” Kulma said. “I’m just going to go out there and give it my all and go out with a fight.”
In contrast to the past two years, when the Barbs sent only one qualifier to the state tournament, Kulma will be joined by teammates Nick Seldal and Charles White, who qualified as a doubles team by taking third place in the sectional.
Unlike many doubles teams, White and Seldal have only been playing together for the past two weeks. Throughout the season, O’Neill chose to spread out the talent over his three doubles teams, hoping to secure as many dual meet wins as possible.
“I knew Nick was always going to show up, he was going to be a steady player,” O’Neill said. “He and Chuck were two of my best doubles players.”
Kulma was ecstatic that two fellow seniors will be joining him.
“It’s awesome to have teammates go to state with me,” Kulma said. “My freshman year, I had a lot of fun with [Rafael Ramalho]. We hung out at the hotel, relaxed. It was like a vacation.”