CUMBERLAND â€” Life is surreal right now for Nick Morin, a 20-year-old sophomore-to-be at the Community College of Rhode Island.
At about 1:15 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, he notched a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Robert Mastrontoni of State University of New York/Adirondack Community College in the No. 6 singles final of the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III Tennis Championships held in Allen, Tex.
With that triumph, Morin earned the right to call himself a national collegiate champion, but that's not the mind-blower. Just four months before, he wasn't playing much tennis, if at all, but it gets better: He didn't even know CCRI had a team.
â€śIt means the world to me,â€ť grinned the North Smithfield resident at his place of employment, Forecourt Racquet & Fitness Club, on Thursday afternoon. The club is the brainchild of his grandfather, Maurice Morin, who died of lung complications on Oct. 4, 2010, just two days before his 77th birthday. He opened it back in 1973, and it's been in the family ever since.
â€śNow I've got a national title under my belt, and I discovered I could battle through a match that I seriously doubted I could win,â€ť he said. â€śIf someone had told me back in January I'd be sitting here (as an NJCAA gold medalist), I would've said, 'Don't be ridiculous! I'm not that good a player.'â€ť
That wasn't the only laurel Morin would glean that week. He also teamed with Nick DeAngelis, a 2011 graduate of Algonquin Regional High in Northboro, Mass., to finish second in the No. 3 doubles portion of the tourney.
They may have dropped a 6-2, 6-3 verdict to John Slojander and Aaron Williams of Gloucester County College in Sewell, N.J., but â€“ courtesy of that placement and others â€“ the Knights captured runner-up honors in the team standings.
Morin flew home with his gold and two silvers, and he simply can't believe his good fortune.
Not bad for a kid who overcame leukemia at age seven, but remembers little about the tribulations he experienced. Or for someone who â€“ as a Mount St. Charles senior in 2010 â€“ couldn't break into the singles lineup.
He instead played No. 1 doubles, landing only All-Division second-team laurels.
â€śThis is something I never ever imagined would happen,â€ť he insisted. â€śIt's freak luck that I found out about (the team). I guess things just came together for me, as they sometimes do. I never expected this, but I'm really glad it did.â€ť
Morin's triumphant road to Texas is more than winding. Call it compelling.
After graduating from MSC, he opted to attend the University of Rhode Island, and initially pondered a try at â€śwalking onâ€ť the Rams' contingent. That was before he discovered the program had been eliminated the year before.
â€śI left URI for a lot of different reasons,â€ť he noted. â€śMy grandfather had passed away about a month into my first semester. It was expected, but that didn't make it any easier. He and I were very close. I'll also say my grades were, well, dreadful, and I took a full semester off to decide what I wanted to do.
â€śI figured I'd go to CCRI in Lincoln (the Flanagan campus) because it was close, and cheap. I wanted to start off slow.
â€śI had no inclination to play any sports; I just wanted to take a couple of classes, that's it.â€ť
He did so starting in September 2011, but chose to enroll as a full-time student (meaning 12 credits) this past January.
â€śMy father (Steve) had told me that CCRI had a tennis team one night in January; what amazed me was I got a phone call from John Panzica the following day, which was crazy,â€ť he said. â€śJohn is the Assistant Dean of Admissions, and his wife, Deb, is the head coach. He told me he wanted to talk to me about playing. I was thinking, â€śI didn't know it existed.'
â€śI was in his office, and he told me about all the traveling they do, about the guys on the team,â€ť he added. â€śHe said I'd see a lot of high-quality play â€¦ A month or two before, I had just started getting back into tennis. There was a while there I just forgot about it. I had lost touch with it, had developed different interests.
â€śURI had dropped it the year before I got there, and I didn't know CCRI fielded a team. After talking to John, I knew immediately I'd join. I needed something at that point; I was working full-time here as the night manager/staff member, and I was taking classes full-time for the first time. I also had just got out of a fairly long relationship, so I needed something active to keep my mind off everything.
â€śWhen I met them, it was amazing! It was miraculous how six guys who had never met each other could get along so well. Everyone was really different, with different personalities â€“ some were serious, and others were always joking around â€“ but we all had tennis as the common bond.â€ť
While playing No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles for the Knights, Morin closed his initial campaign at CCRI with an 8-2 individual record and 9-1 mark with DeAngelis.
They qualified to compete at the NJCAA Division III tourney, and left on Friday, May 11.
Just a few days before the flight, Brian Morin â€“ Forecourt co-owner with brother Steve â€“ approached his nephew when he walked into work and asked him if he wanted to â€śbang aroundâ€ť a few balls.
â€śHe asked me why I was hitting my backhand with a closed stance, and I just said, 'I don't know,'â€ť the younger Morin stated. â€śI told him I was having trouble driving it cross-court, and he just grinned, 'Nick, it's because of your stance!' He told me to open it up, and to watch the ball and follow through up to my front shoulder.
â€śThe first shot I hit, it solved the problem,â€ť he added.
When he first arrived in Texas, he found out he had drawn the tourney's top seed in the No. 6 singles quarterfinal, one to be contested on Tuesday, May 15. His name? Shammel Martin of Gloucester County College in New Jersey.
â€śHe was a 'consistency' player; he returned everything,â€ť Morin said. â€śHe was really working my backhand; I noticed that in the very first game. I also noticed I was getting my backhand really deep and to his backhand.
â€śWhen he'd hit a short ball, I'd rush the net and put it away with my forehand.â€ť
Morin eventually outlasted the talented Martin, 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (4), and he admitted he was flabbergasted by the achievement.
â€śThe first thing anyone said to me was Ross Bouchard; he just looked at me, saying, 'That was better than watching tennis on TV!'â€ť Morin laughed. â€śI just said, 'My God! What just happened? Tell me!' He told me it was the backhand.â€ť
The very next day, May 16, he crushed Mason Padron of Onondega Community College in Lawrenceville, N.J., 6-1, 6-3, then battered Mastrontoni for the No. 6 singles national crown; that was held at Collin Community College in Allen, a suburb of Plano.
â€śI think it was the confidence that I had built up after the quarterfinal against Martin,â€ť Morin offered. â€śI actually had beaten Padron during the regular season, but that went to a third-set tiebreaker. I also think I was able to win because I was afraid to open up the stance on the backhand.
â€śI look back and think that I had those shots in me all season, but I was holding back,â€ť he continued. â€śI was scared to take a chance and open up.â€ť
Minutes after securing the gold, he phoned his dad.
â€śHe couldn't believe it,â€ť Morin said. â€śHe told me he had a feeling I could do it, and that I might, but didn't want to say anything. He didn't want to jinx me. But he was really proud. I got calls and texts from people back home, and they were surprised. Some said, 'I didn't even know you played tennis!'â€ť
The next call went to his grandmother, Jeannine, who lives in Bellingham.
â€śI told her I absolutely dedicated the championship to my grandfather, and she was in tears,â€ť he revealed. â€śShe was so proud. After all, I had played most of my life with my family. That's our sport.â€ť
â€śUncle Briâ€ť was next on his list.
â€śI got a voice mail from him; he said, 'Hey, I need to talk to you.' I knew immediately something interesting had happened,â€ť Brian mentioned. â€śI called him back the next day, and you could hear the team in the background. When he told me he had won the singles and took second in doubles, I was astonished.
â€śThen he said it was because I had helped him with the backhand, and I just said, 'What?' We only worked on it for 20 minutes, but he said it was the deciding factor in the quarterfinal match. That blew me away!â€ť
Because of the storybook ending to his first-ever collegiate season, Morin will re-enroll at CCRI in August to pursue his goal of an Associate's degree in general studies. After that, he plans to attend URI and garner a Bachelor's in environmental science.
â€śI have another great season planned ahead,â€ť he noted. â€śWe only lose one player from our national runner-up team, and that's Michael Fallone (of North Providence), our No. 1 singles. I'm not sure how it will go, but I'm going to bust my butt to get a higher ranking (at CCRI). I'd like to move higher, but â€“ if I don't â€“ I'll just do anything I can to help the team.
â€śI'm still stunned,â€ť he added, â€śhow all this happened. This is incredible.â€ť