The NIC-10’s greatest tennis rivalry didn’t really begin until Freeport’s Derek Rasheed upset Guilford’s Kevin Park for the 1994 sectional title when both were sophomores.
“I didn’t play a lot of USTA tournaments before high school and wasn’t very good, while Kevin played a lot of USTA tournaments and had a high ranking from a young age,” said Rasheed, now a doctor in Portland, Oregon. “He beat me solidly when we were freshmen. That opened my eyes and made me realize my game had significant holes that needed to be filled.
“When I beat him my sophomore year at sectionals, it was my first win over a player of his caliber and gave me confidence I could compete at that level.”
Rasheed did not beat Park again until another sectional upset as a senior.
“Derek was difficult to play,” Park said of Rasheed. “He was a really good athlete, and a lot of those type of players tend to play unconventionally, not like most players play. So it was always tough to play him.”
Even with that second sectional title, Rasheed was only 2-9 all-time vs. his great rival. Still, he had a chance to win the rivalry when the two were seeded Nos. 1 and 2 for the state tournament. They are two of only five players in Rockford-area history to ever earn a top-two seed at state.
“That was exciting,” Rasheed said. “We joked throughout our high school career about our rivalry and kept track of the score. It became clear Kevin was going to win the high school career series, but we always put an asterisk in our rivalry: If we ever play in the state finals, whoever wins that will be the winner, regardless of the record.
“And we came close.”
Rasheed had reached the No. 7-8 spot at state as a junior, which left him one match short of joining 1965 state champ Dan Wikse of Rockford West, who was fifth as a junior, West’s Julian Bruening (fifth twice in the 1950s) and Guilford’s Tracy Fenelon (second in 1978 and 1979) as the only two-time state medal winners in Rockford-area history. As seniors, both Rasheed and Park reached Saturday’s semifinals.
And both had the draw they wanted. Moline’s Olivier Beauclercq had beaten Park at the Moline Invitational but now had to play Rasheed, who had beaten Beauclercq twice in straight sets while winning five invitational tournaments during the season. Rasheed came in 34-3, with two losses to Park and one to the fourth semifinalist, Ottawa’s Jeff Jansen.
Rasheed wanted to play Beauclercq, but the exchange student from Belgium was confident even though he had lost twice already to Freeport’s greatest player.
“If I can beat Park, I can beat Rasheed,” he told the Rockford Register Star.
He was right, winning 6-0, 6-3. Rasheed, who then also lost to Jansen to finish fourth, told the paper he “played scared.” And Beauclercq would then go on to edge Park 7-5, 7-5 for the title after trailing 5-2 in the first set and 4-2 in the second.
“That was the most disappointing athletic loss of my career,” Rasheed said, “not only because it was in the state semifinals, but because I would have played Kevin Park in the finals. It had seemed since we were freshman that we were destined to play for the state title. That was a huge disappointment.”
Rasheed thinks two things turned the third match in Beauclercq’s favor. “All of my friends came and watched. I had never played in front of many fans before,” he said. “It was more of a spectacle than I was used to, at least a spectacle by high school tennis standards.”
Also, Moline’s coach had sat courtside in their last match to study Rasheed. “I still had some weaknesses in my game, like hitting low balls with my forehand,” Rasheed said. “He hit a lot of low balls to my forehand.”
A weak forehand was the first flaw Park had exposed in Rasheed’s game three years earlier.
“Before high school, my forehand was terrible,” Park said. “All I did was charge the net, regardless of whether it was an optimal solution. One of the things I learned when I played Kevin was you have to have a good enough baseline game where at least some of the time you can play at the baseline and not be horribly overmatched.”
Beauclercq was almost strictly a baseliner, growing up playing on red clay in Europe.
Rasheed was an athlete turned tennis player. He was a standout swimmer and also a pitcher in Little League. As a swimmer, he won Illinois state titles at the 10-under and 12-under age levels and still holds part of a NIC-10 record on one of Freeport’s relay teams.
Those varied skills helped him when he began working with Ed Schradermeier, then the tennis pro at the YWCA Racquet Center and now Freeport’s boys tennis coach.
“I never taught another player who would take something I would teach and improve upon it within the first lesson,” Schradermeier said. “But he was such an extreme athlete. When I showed him a kick serve, by the end of the first practice he was hitting it with his swimming motion in a way I couldn’t imagine. He would pronate his arm using his swimming motion and he could get it to kick both ways.”
“Throughout my high school career, my serve and volley game was my bread and butter,” Rasheed said. “I was one of the early adopters of big kick serves. There are ways to manipulate the axis of rotation so the ball bounces straight up and forward or up and to the right, which is normally known as the twist serve. My service motion looked a little atypical, like a forehand swimming stroke. I have no idea if those two are related, but I had a great kick serve. Ed is the one who taught me that.”
Rasheed also got serve and volley tips from Corey Engel, who succeeded Schradermeier at the Racquet Center.
“Derek wasn’t the smoothest guy, but he made up for it with an extremely high IQ and incredible athleticism,” Engel said. “He just did not miss balls. I was a serve and volleyer. I told him he needed to employ that along with his baseline game to keep his opponents at bay. He wasn’t your typical serve and volleyer like a McEnroe guy. He’d serve and wait for the right time to approach. He was just a winner mentally.”
Rasheed’s first win over Park featured an odd-looking ending. Rasheed won the 1994 sectional title 6-3, 5-4 (retired). He led 40-15 on his serve when Park got hurt and couldn’t finish, an injury that would pop up again when Park retired in the first set in his fourth-round match at state as a sophomore the next week.
“I hit one of my trademark kick serves out wide to his backhand,” Rasheed said. “As he tried to get out there, he pulled his hamstring and crumpled. They brought out a plastic chair and carried him off the court. As they were carrying him off, a coach said, ‘We default.’ I gave an awkward cheer as he was carried off. It was a unique moment.”
His other win over Park is perhaps the highlight of Rasheed’s athletic career. Rasheed’s 2-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Park in 1996 was the deciding match that gave Freeport its second of three sectional titles in school history and snapped Guilford’s string of 14 consecutive sectional titles.
He also helped Freeport win the 1995 sectional swimming title, the only time in a 10-year period that Guilford didn’t win sectional swimming.
“Guilford had won every conference and sectional title for many years in a row in both swimming and tennis,” Rasheed said when asked his favorite sports memory. “My Freeport tennis and swimming teams broke those strings.”
About This Series
The Journal-Standard and the Rockford Register Star are running a daily retrospective on the greatest area athletes of the past 75 years in every IHSA sport fielded by local high schools. We picked separate lists for Freeport and Rockford for our greatest football players and boys and girls basketball players, but will pick just one list encompassing both areas for most other sports, with complete stories only on the Freeport-area athletes on those lists in The Journal-Standard.
All of the greatest athletes are chosen by Matt Trowbridge with input from NIC-10 History Book founder Alex Gary, plus other area experts and fans.
Here is our tennis list:
No. 1: Dick Johnson, Rockford East. Fifth-place in 1962 state tournament, later ranked No. 1 in the world in over-70 age bracket.
No. 2: Tracy Fenelon, Guilford. Two-time state runner-up in 1978 and 1979 who was sick and missed the state tournament as a senior.
No. 3: Dan Wikse, West. The area’s only state champion in 1965. Also finished fifth as a junior in 1964 and was the first three-time Big Eight Conference singles champion.
No. 4: Kevin Park, Guilford. The only four-time NIC-10 singles champion. Finished second in the state as a senior in 1996 and was 9-2 lifetime against Freeport great Derek Rasheed. The two were seeded 1-2 in the state as seniors.
No. 5: Brandon Ancona, Rockford Christian. Seeded No. 2 at state as a senior at Rockford Christian, conference player of the year at Valparaiso as a junior and now starting for Notre Dame as a senior.
No. 6: Derek Rasheed, Freeport. Finished fourth in the state as a senior, reached the top eight as a junior and upset four-time conference champion Kevin Park of Guilford twice in the sectional finals.
No. 7: Branden Metzler, Auburn. Three-time NIC-10 champion who finished second in the nation in NCAA Division III as a junior at Kalamazoo College and reached the semifinals as a senior.
No. 8: Mark Saunders, West. Fifth in the state in doubles in 1971, won two tournaments on satellite pro tours and is now the longtime executive director of the United States Tennis Association Midwest Section.
No. 9: John Torrence, West. Finished fifth in the state in 1972, played briefly at Virginia, was a club pro for two years in Germany and is a nine-time singles champion in the now-defunct Rockford City tourney.
No. 10: Julian Bruening, West: Finished fifth in the state in 1953 and 1954, one of only three two-time state place-winners in area history, along with Wikse and Fenelon.