'More than a silver lining': BS South grad Nguyen puts together 'state' tournament, then wins it
Mason Gates sat in an IHOP Friday morning and watched the rain continue to pour outside.
Gates, a rising senior at Staley High School, had his suspicions about the weather nearly 24 hours prior as he made the drive from Kansas City to Columbia.
Gates remembers worrying about the storm and calling graduating senior Sean Nguyen that night. He told Nguyen to stay positive — hopefully the rain would stop by the morning and the months of planning that went into hosting the 2020 Missouri High School Boys Summer State Tennis Championships wouldn’t be quite literally washed away.
Boys tennis was one of several sports affected by COVID-19 this March when school districts across the state closed to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. Social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders became part of life in the midst of the pandemic.
Along with that came an understanding that sports would take a backseat.
Schools shifted to virtual learning, while athletics were postponed and later canceled. Nguyen saw his senior season at Blue Springs South ripped away due to COVID-19.
Naturally, it was a difficult thing to process.
“I was completely shocked,” Nguyen said. “It’s never happened before. I thought I was going to have a heck of a senior year. … When MSHSAA canceled, I was really heartbroken. I didn’t know what to do.”
Nguyen was facing the same situation as athletes all across the country, especially seniors: How do you cope with the loss of a season or the end of your high school career?
Nguyen came across his answer with help from Gates later in the spring, as sports such as baseball and softball began to get ready for high school summer seasons and travel ball. Gate’s suggestion originally seemed like a joke, but its sentiment resonated with Nguyen:
If MSHSAA or coaches wouldn’t organize a large tournament this summer, why couldn’t they?
Nguyen already had experience organizing tennis tournaments through his non-profit organization Forty Love. Nguyen has helped raise over $2,500 over the past two years for Uplift Organization Inc., which helps provide supplies and assistance to the homeless in Kansas City.
Nguyen understood that putting together a summer state championship would be a difficult undertaking, but the circumstances of this spring — coupled with another avenue to raise money for Uplift — made the decision a no-brainer.
“Since we were in quarantine, let’s just take a shot and see where it goes,” he recalls thinking.
Nguyen began late this spring by picking a date and location for the tournament.
The tournament needed to be late enough in the summer to have a chance at putting on the event safely under social distancing rules but before graduating seniors left in droves to their respective colleges. The tourney would be in mid-Missouri to give players in St. Louis and Kansas City an equal opportunity to travel and compete.
Nguyen reached out to coaches and the Missouri United States Tennis Association for help hosting it. He and Gates were joined by Missouri USTA Vice President Rhonda Kaissi in organizing the tournament.
“Nguyen sent me an email about a month ago,” Kaissi said. “He told me that I was the only one that replied to that email, which I’m happy that I did reply. I’m happy to help them put on a great tournament.”
She had her concerns heading into the project, however, despite Nguyen’s enthusiasm early on. Kaissi couldn’t help but smile when characterizing Nguyen as extremely persistent and talking about his willingness to help.
Nguyen helped solidify the courts at Cosmo-Bethel Park as the venue and worked on contacting coaches and players as well as developing entry requirements for the tournament.
“Last year’s state qualifiers gain automatic entry into the tournament,” Nguyen explained via email Thursday. “The remaining spots are given to last year’s sectional qualifiers from highest to lowest UTR (universal tennis rating). Everyone else above a UTR of five is eligible to sign up but will be given entry only if there are spots left in the draw.”
There were roadblocks in filling the singles and doubles tournaments, such as concerns about COVID-19 cases continuing to rise in Missouri in the weeks leading up to the two-day tourney.
However, the field was set with 19 singles players and nine doubles teams.
“None of us can believe that nearly three months later, here it is,” Nguyen said. “It’s a reality.”
Then the rain continued to fall and worry filled Nguyen’s mind.
Would all of this be rained out?
Matches were scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Friday and were postponed until noon. Nguyen and Gates were joined by other competitors in squeegeeing the courts before play could begin.
It helped symbolize why Nguyen worked so hard to get this tourney organized in the first place. There were no referees. The players were keeping score. It was all for the love of competition, and for seniors, a chance to compete one last time at the high school level.
Nguyen couldn’t be happier to bring that to other players.
“Never did I imagine I would be running a tournament and playing in it myself,” Nguyen said with a smile while looking at three matches taking place. “One of the biggest tournaments, I’ll say, for high school. It’s truly awesome. There are no words to describe it.”
Nguyen and his doubles partner, Carter McIntosh, were the No. 2 seed and advanced to the final against Arnav Gannavaram and Hogan Stoker from Lee’s Summit West.
“Hogan and Arnav are two really fantastic players,” Nguyen said. “Hogan is someone who has beaten me most of the time, and when we were down a set, we thought we were going to lose. … Who knew we would come back and win it all?”
Nguyen and McIntosh went on to win 5-7, 6-3, 10-3 in the doubles final.
“Hosting a state tourney, then winning it is crazy,” Nguyen said. “It’s obviously not the MSHSAA state championship or what we expected, but it’s definitely more than just a silver lining.”