A month ago Chris Ujkic thought his college tennis career at Sacred Heart University was over due to a shoulder separation.
Today the former Mattituck High School standout is preparing to captain the Pioneers in the NCAA Division I tennis tournament after coming back to help them capture the Northeast Conference title.
“I just felt really blessed everything worked out the way they did,” Ujkic said. “I ended playing well the whole tournament.”
Ujkic was resigned to being a spectator after he fell on the court in Fairfield, Conn., on March 30 while working on his game after practice.
“I had a rough couple of days,” he said. “I went through seven stages of grieving in like two days. I thought it was over. I could be a cheerleader, but now everyone in the lineup moves down a spot, which kind of kills us.”
As the top-seeded singles and doubles player, Ujkic realized his absence would affect the Pioneers’ rotation.
Ujkic became determined to return when, during a rehab session in the Sacred Heart athletic training room, he monitored on his iPhone the results of the Pioneer’s win over Monmouth University. He was impressed with how a sophomore with minimal experience gutted out a victory to clinch the team win.
“I was thinking we had a solid chance,” he said. “I was thinking if I could rehab this shoulder, get back and maybe play No. 6 or something. I wouldn’t have to play one or two, necessarily.”
His wish came true after he went through rehabilitation three hours a day over 10 days. He kept his mind busy during the sessions by studying for his classes. In his first match as the No. 3 seed, he won in three sets, “[defeating a player] that I normally would beat pretty handily. I had a whole repertoire of shots that I couldn’t hit any more. I was in pretty rough shape.”
He took the weekend off, returned and won nine consecutive matches entering the NEC tournament. The Pioneers defeated defending champion Quinnipiac, 4-1, on April 17.
“I felt great,” he said. “The whole team peaked at the right time.”
The Pioneers qualified for the NCAAs for the second time in three years. When they won two years ago, Ujkic was a sophomore.
“This one felt a lot better,” he said. “The first one we were in the third seed spot. We didn’t have high expectations. We had a very talented young squad. Everyone performed on that day really well. It was a great, surprising feeling.
“In our junior year it was like the Patriots vs. the Giants in the Super Bowl. We went undefeated. We were just mauling teams. In the championship we lose by one game in the third set by our sixth singles spot. That was kind of crushing.”
This season was sweeter.
“We had a kind of up and down scary season,” he said. “It was in the back of our heads the whole time that the team kind of knew that we could take it. But the X factor was right after the winter break.”
That was when Ujkic was named team captain. He sat down before the spring season with coach Paul Gagliardi, who talked about the upcoming season.
“It was the first time I felt his nerves, whereas I never sensed his nervousness,” Ujkic said. “He was enlightening me that we were all seniors and he was going to be sad in losing us. He knows how talented we are and we could come together and take the [NEC] championship one more time. We set some goals for each individual.”
The NCAAs are a giant step because there are no weak teams. The Pioneers on May 3 will learn their opponents for the regionals, set for May 13-15. The championship round is in Stanford, Calif., May 19 to 30.
“It’s the depth of the teams,” Ujkic said. “The tournament is a whole other feel. It’s the best players and they’re playing tight. Sometimes the worse players with less on their shoulders play looser. It happens every year. There’s almost always a big upset. It’s really hard to tell, especially in tennis, who’s really going to come to perform and who’s going to go into their shell.”