Hogan Stoker has faced down his share of challenges on the tennis court this season. All of them pale by comparison to the real-life challenge that brought him to tennis in the first place.
Stoker is going to the Class 2 boys state tennis tournament, and he’s the first freshman from Lee’s Summit West to ever do so. He got there by surviving a rugged regular season and an intense 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-5) battle with Blake Savidge of Truman in a Class 2 sectional tournament May 15 at Santa Fe Trail Park in Independence.
And he’s also overcome inner-ear conditions that have left him with significant hearing loss.
“It’s really an awesome thing,” West tennis coach Paul Klene said. “And it’s so rare. A lot of times good freshman players (play) doubles because it’s just so hard in singles.”
Stoker has been hearing-impaired since birth, and his condition worsened after he took a blow to the head when he was in the fifth grade. He was eventually diagnosed with Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct and Mondini dysplasia, two deformities of the inner ear that affect his hearing and could lead to permanent hearing loss.
A soccer player at the time, Stoker was also ordered not to compete in contact sports.
“I basically had options like golf, tennis, track and field or cross country,” Stoker said. “Tennis seemed like the most exciting sport.”
It proved to be a good choice for Stoker, who started taking the sport seriously in the sixth grade. By the time he got to West, he had already been competing on the USTA circuit.
Klene said it didn’t take long for him to see Stoker’s potential.
“The very first time I saw Hogan hit I was very impressed with how he was hitting,” Klene said. “His strokes looked a lot more refined than a lot of other kids. I knew I had something special when I started seeing him hit.”
Despite his hearing impairment, Stoker can practice and compete like any other player. He goes about his business on the court without any special workouts or accommodations.
“It’s not really that much of a problem, but in some cases you might not hear if the ball hits off the frame or not,” Stoker said. “And so you really have to focus on looking at where the ball hits and how much it has spin on it.”
Stoker needed that focus to navigate a schedule Klene designed to challenge the Titans and prepare them for possible postseason play. In his first match of the season, Stoker faced Carson Gates of Staley, the runner-up in Class 2 state singles last season. Stoker lost the match 8-2, but he and his partner beat Gates and his brother Mason Gates in No. 1 doubles.
“I just thought it was fantastic that he was able to keep his poise,” Klene said.
After that came battles against the top players from Rockhurst, Pembroke Hill and Liberty as well as a first place finish in the Sedalia Smith-Cotton Invitational. He grabbed one of the two qualifying spots in the Class 2 District 13 tournament to set up to set up the showdown with Savidge for a spot in the state tournament.
Stoker lost a 3-2 lead in the first set, and he trailed 6-5 before rallying in the second set. Then he battled back from a 4-2 deficit in the tiebreaker to end the nearly three-hour match.
“It was a battle,” Stoker said. “Momentum was going back and forth – you’d win two games in a row and he’d win two games in a row. You just had to fight through the emotions that you had and every point was really physical.”
Stoker will take a 17-4 singles record to the Class 2 state singles tournament, which will take place May 25-26 at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield. Being a freshman, he realizes making it all the way to the final will be a challenge.
Not that overcoming challenges are anything new for him.
“I’m just going to there and just try my hardest,” Stoker said. “I’m just going to give it my all for every point and every match and we’ll see what happens.”