The gift of memories

January 17th, 2015

There will be the tangible, visible reminders.

His name will be on the wall above Court 1 at Goodfriend Indoor Tennis Center. His initials “SK” will be stitched on the sleeve of their shirts. Around their necks they’ll wear a matching memento, the silver anchor and cross that was special to him.

But Sean Karl’s lasting essence will be carried in the hearts and minds of his University of Tennessee teammates.

Karl, a 20-year-old sophomore, died in November after a battle with cancer. He was a vital member of the team until the very end, even when he could no longer swing a racquet.

The Vols open a promising season with the Tennessee Spring Invitational, playing two matches Saturday and two more Monday, all at the Goodfriend Center.

“We’ve all come from under the cloud and the stress and the sadness of the last semester,” UT coach Sam Winterbotham said Tuesday.

“I would say going through the grieving process has energized all of us, coming out the other side.”

Dealing with a contemporary’s death isn’t the usual experience in collegiate sports. The young are supposed to be invincible. But to a man, the Vols insist Karl’s ordeal was never a burden.

“He lived his life just like every one of us,” said teammate Hunter Reese, “except that every third week he had to go get chemo treatments.

“He was such a positive guy all the time. You didn’t’ know he was sick. Just going through that, having thememory I have of him, it’s kind of a gift.”

“Privilege” is the word Winterbothamkeeps coming back to when he recounts Karl’s time at UT— as in the team was privileged to have him.

A star recruit from Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Karl’s cancer was diagnosed before he arrived at UT. He bounced back from his first round of treatment to play a dozen singles matches in the 2013-14 season. Then the cancer, Ewing Sarcoma, returned.

Led by volunteer assistant coach Ben Testerman, the team and others close to the program met with Karl on Thursday nights to stay abreast of the situation.

“We never thought of it as a negative impact,” said Winterbotham.

“We were completely committed to it as a program.”

Winterbotham, an Englishman who has maintained UT as a national power, chooses his words carefully.

“It was,” he said, “a very genuine positive process of an incredibly sad event.”

Senior Brandon Fickey from Knoxville first encountered Karl on a court at age 8 or 9. From doubles partners on the state juniors circuit, they would become UT teammates and eventually roommates.

“I just can’t get away from the smile and how he made people feel,” Fickey said. “He made sure you were OK before he wondered about himself.”

Mikelis Libietis, who teamed with Reese to win the 2014 NCAA doubles title, is using his senior season as one final prep for the pro circuit that awaits. A little bit of Karl rubbing off wasn’t a bad thing.

“Sean was such a good person,” Libietis said, “always smiling. You don’t see many people like that in the world.

“I just look at him and try to be as much like him, to be more positive. Hopefully, it’s going to help me in the future.”

It should be a terrific season for the Vols. Several talented freshmen are pushing the seniors. UT starts the season ranked No. 17.

“I hate being ranked that low, quite honestly,” said Winterbotham. “We’re not used to being outside the top 10.”

Libietis and Fickey have overcome injuries and are excited to start their final campaigns in good health. Libietis and Reese stand at 81 career doubles wins, within striking range of the UT record of 102, set by Shelby Cannon and Byron Talbot from 1985- 88.

“We have a great team,” Winterbotham said.

No one would be surprised to see it climb back inside the top 10. Wherever the journey takes the Vols, Karl will be along for the ride.

“I don’t think we’re going to be using that as a crutch or excuse of why we lost or why we won,” Fickey said. “I don’t think Sean would want that.

“But Sean is one of those guys that, you may be winning or losing, but at some point in the match, you’ll remember that he should have been out on the court with you.

“And that will give you that extra little fire that you may need.”

Courtesy of: Mike Strange

Published by: Knoxville News Sentinel

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