Lane’s underclassmen take Chicago tennis by storm


Freshman Thomas Gjoklaj mid-match at Oak Park River Forest. (Photo courtesy of Adam Eberhard)

By Charlotte Price

Though you might not realize it while taking a walk around Horner Park, Lane Tech tennis history is being made on the park’s tennis courts. Four intense games, some doubles and some singles, quietly take place in front of a small, scattered audience of mostly parents. However, to a viewer clued in to the Chicago prep tennis scene, this meet is another example of Lane Tech’s varsity tennis team dominating the city.

Usually flying under the radar as compared to Lane’s more highly publicized teams, the boys varsity tennis team is home to some of Lane’s most successful athletes — and they’re mostly underclassmen.

“We got a huge influx of talent from our freshman class,” said Josh Park, one of the head boys tennis coaches at Lane. “So last year we were already working with Marko Mcrae, who was a freshman at the time. So basically the upper half of our varsity is made up of freshmen.”

This young talent has helped balance out the roster with youth and experience, according to Lane’s other coach, Darren Olson.

“That really is a complement to the already outstanding team we’ve had with sophomores, juniors, and seniors,” said Olson, who is new to coaching the team this year.  

Some of these powerhouse underclassmen include Mcrae and freshmen Thomas Gjoklaj, Freddie Hasnovi and Alex Lapins.

Though varsity sports are usually dominated by upperclassmen, Park said that the large concentration of underclassmen this year isn’t a detriment to the team.

“So in terms of dynamic, leadership comes from me and Coach Olson in terms of setting the mood, but then all the guys get along together really well,” Park said. “So I honestly don’t even see class disparity that much. It’s just the team.”

Mcrae also said that the unique balance creates a positive environment.

“So we have a really great environment and we just got lucky this year with all the freshmen that actually used to play tennis,” he said. “So it’s going really good. And everyone’s communicating really well.”

Mcrae is the first varsity singles player on the tennis team, and has been playing since he was six. Mcrae said what sets him apart is the work he puts in outside of team practice and his mindset.

“I’ve played a ton of tournaments outside of school, and mentally I can dial in at a match and get everyone pumped at a meet,” he said. 

Mcrae’s teammate, Gjoklaj, also noted how Mcrae contributes to the team culture.

“There’s a sophomore on the team Marko, which is, like, really like the one that talks the most, that motivates people,” said Gjoklaj.  “I’m more of like, on my own. I just talk to people, but I’m not trying to motivate too much,” he continued. 

Gjoklaj, who recently moved to the United States from France, where he began his tennis training, usually plays second singles for Lane’s team. He also discussed the importance of putting in the work outside of team practices; Gjoklaj trains 2-3 times a day. 

“My tennis practice, I would just hit the ball, play games, do drills, and my own physical practice, I would just train my footwork and strength,” he said. 

 “Well, I feel like Thomas is strong at the baseline for sure,” said team captain Indrit Metarapi. “But I mean, that being said, he’s very strong at the net as well, but he definitely has some extremely powerful shots.”

Metarapi has been able to improve his game through collaboration with coaches Park and Olson. 

“When I was a freshman, I think number one concern for me and for the coach was my consistency, or a lack thereof, and my serve consistency was kind of poor. But as the years went on, I continued going for, ‘OK, build the point rather than just go for a one shot winner,’” Metarapi said.

Park and Olson have been integral factors in creating an effective and consistent team, according to Mcrae and Gjoklaj.

“Coach Park is a really, really nice guy,” Mcrae said. “He helps everyone out with their mental game. And then also we have Coach Olson, who was a D1 athlete, so he knows the whole area, like for tennis and he knows exactly what to tell each player, he’s really good for that.”

“Their strategy is to always think positive and try to get the best out of us,” Gjoklaj said of the coaching duo. “They’re trying to motivate us.”

Coach Olson said he’s excited about how these growing talents have helped the team to expand their horizons.

“We’re just extremely deep this year and we have got some really high level talent too. That has been great because it’s allowed us to schedule matches with suburban teams,” Olson said. 

These opportunities have allowed the team to move towards their goal of continuing their success at the state meet level.

“Right now we’re in the process of building towards a program that routinely gets people to the state meet, and I think this year is going to be a great start to that,” Olson said.

On May 5, Lane started their postseason journey with a dominating victory at city. Despite this, Mcrae hopes to shoot even higher in coming seasons.

“Our team is gonna be much better next year and the year after, as the freshmen get older and stronger,” Mcrae said.