Aaron Pfister: The Program Player
April 15, 2014
By Jason Pearson, MSU Athletic Communications student assistant
When someone looks back on the Michigan State men's tennis team's first-ever run to the NCAA Tournament in 2013, the first player to likely come up will be Aaron Pfister. When someone inside or outside the program looks to how far MSU tennis has progressed in the past four years, Aaron Pfister is likely to be the top name coming to mind. At the team banquet on March 29 when current players talked about this year's senior class and its leader, Aaron Pfister's name was mentioned too many times to count.
Senior co-captain Aaron Pfister certainly has been a "program guy" to the MSU men's tennis program, as described by head coach Gene Orlando, during his four years in East Lansing. The two-time All-Big Ten player has earned his share of accolades on court, but the leadership he has provided off the court will leave just as large of a mark on his Spartan legacy.
The senior tale on Pfister begins as he concludes his senior season at Grand Blanc High School in Grand Blanc, Mich. He completed four years as a letterwinner on the varsity tennis team and those four years culminated in him being named Michigan Mr. Tennis in his senior year of 2009.
His long list of high school and junior tennis achievements, including singles state champion in 2008 and 2009 and being ranked as high as No. 35 in the country, can be traced back to when Pfister was four years old. At that age, Pfister was initiated into the game by his father, John, and by the age of eight, Pfister was playing tennis competitively. John had been a tennis player himself, competing at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan and still having a strong passion for the game he tried to pass down onto Aaron and Aaron's younger brother, Jonathan. By the age of 10, Pfister had attended his first summer tennis camp at MSU with Coach Orlando.
As Pfister made his way around different junior tennis circuits, he notes the support his family provided him with during those years.
"None of this wouldn't have been possible without them, that's for sure," he said. "My parents, my whole family in general, sacrificed a lot for me to be where I am today. A lot of time invested, effort and money. It's not an easy process and they did everything they could to put the resources in line for me to be the best I could be."
Especially during his senior year of high school, tennis became a family affair for the Pfisters, as John and Wendy Pfister had the opportunity to watch both of their sons play. Aaron competed at No. 1 singles for Grand Blanc and younger brother Jonathan was on the court next to him, at No. 2 singles.
"I didn't really realize it at the time but looking back at it now as I'm almost done with tennis in general, you think about it and appreciate it more," Pfister said of playing singles next to his brother. "That was a pretty special thing to do, I wish I would have realized it when it was going on, but it was a pretty cool thing."
His high school numbers drew the attention of some college coaches. Pfister noted he had the list narrowed down to MSU, Western Michigan, Xavier and Iowa. Orlando had kept a close eye on Pfister ever since he started attending his camps.
"He was someone I wanted for years," Orlando said. "I knew he was coming. He played at my camps. We are obviously trying to win with Michigan kids. Our focus is with recruiting Michigan kids and he'd been a top player in the state."
Pfister notes that while at first he wasn't sure he wanted to play close to home, he did end up committing to MSU, partly because of its proximity to home and the opportunity to have his family continue to watch him play. He also notes the relationship he had built with Coach Orlando.
"I know he kept his eye on me recruiting me for a long time and I always appreciated that," Pfister said. "He always helped me keep more of an eye open to Michigan State because of that. I always appreciated that, made me feel like he cared about me, which he does. He's a real positive person. It's nice playing for someone like that. He always believes in you, believes in his players. You could be getting smacked and he still believes you can come back and win. It's pretty rare to find coaches who are like that and that's something that not only myself, but the whole team appreciates."
Move ahead to Pfister's freshman year in the fall of 2010 when he encounters a Spartan who came to serve as one of his biggest role models on campus. The incoming freshman class consisted of Pfister and Drew Lied and the outgoing senior class consisted of John Stratton, Jason Norville, and Clark Richardson. Those three, but most specifically Richardson, had a profound impact on Pfister as he adjusted to college tennis. It wasn't just on the court, but it was how Richardson conducted himself off the court as well, which had an effect on Pfister.
"Clark was a good player, he wasn't like the greatest player, but he was great in so many other ways more important than tennis," Pfister said. "The guy, he was always on the borderline for doubles, kind of in and out, and sometimes he wouldn't find out until right before the match and you wouldn't even know it. You would think he was playing one singles on the day. He was so energized and team-minded. The way he handled relationships with people, how respectful he was with adults, with representing the programs, I never really remember seeing him do the wrong thing. I remember saying to myself consistently, `I want to be like that guy.' I can't say I have but I've tried to do my best. He really paved a great path for me to follow."
Richardson has long since graduated and moved to Kansas City, Mo., to continue his professional business career, but Pfister and him stay in frequent contact with each other, often exchanging text messages and making time for phone conversations when both of their schedules line up.
Pfister made a splash in his first season, racking up 30 singles wins overall, that included a 17-match winning streak at one point during the season, and also winning six matches over nationally ranked opponents.
Heading into his sophomore season, Pfister would be without Richardson and the graduated seniors from a year ago, but he still had one of the other role models who he attributes some of his MSU successes to around, and that was assistant coach Matt Roberts. Roberts was in his third year with the Spartan program during Pfister's sophomore season. Roberts and Pfister shared a similar physique and body type and that only increased the amount of potential impact the assistant coach could give to the 6'4" sophomore.
"I never realized how much alike I am to him," Pfister said. "The way I play the game is very much a mirror of what he wanted I think and I'm okay with that. Same body build as me, same height, weight, everything, so it kind of worked out that way. Maybe he saw that in me and saw that as an opportunity for himself and embrace it and I embraced it to because he's going to teach me to play the game in a way that was going to be beneficial."
Pfister backed up his freshman year with an equally impressive sophomore season as he won a team-high 27 matches in singles playing on the top court. After winning the singles bracket of the Big Ten Indoors in the fall of 2011, a week later Pfister was named one of the team captains for the upcoming spring season. He was also named to the All-Big Ten first team that year. He has been captain ever since his sophomore season, making him the only player under Coach Orlando to have been named a captain for three seasons.
Heading into his junior season, Roberts left MSU to continue his coaching career elsewhere. With Richardson gone and now Roberts gone, Pfister is willing to admit he did feel somewhat of a void during his junior season. Pfister worked himself through the void, along with some guidance from Orlando and newly hired assistant coach Ryan Young.
Pfister's junior season may be the one Spartans will remember the most. Coach Orlando set up a schedule that asked his team to take their games to another level, and Pfister was certainly able to deliver.
"We were playing a tougher schedule, because as the program grows, you've got to get the matches," Orlando said. "He had to take his game to another level and kudos to him, he picked up quality wins over Vanderbilt, South Carolina, among others. He rang the bell against top-20 guys. The expectations of balancing everything and he finished All-Big Ten at 6-5."
Most importantly that season, as he was playing No. 1 singles, Pfister helped lead MSU to its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2013. Especially in the team element of college tennis, when a team has success, the first name being associated with the team is usually the top singles player, which, in this year was Pfister.
"That's definitely something to be proud of and remember which I am and I will remember," Pfister said. "It was just the process. I just tried to do my job day in and day out and tried to get better every day. It was an amazing ride, seeing our name light up on that screen. We worked so hard for it and really everything was worth it at that point in time. It was a surreal feeling that's for sure."
Heading into his senior season, Pfister and the Spartans were looking to earn back-to-back tournament appearances. As a team, the Spartans struggled in their non-conference slate, dropping tight matches by literally just a single point. Once conference play got underway in late February, the Spartans were gearing up for a breakthrough Big Ten season. However, in the later weeks of March, Pfister went down with an injury that he has since returned to the court from, but it sidelined him for two weekends worth of matches. Not being on the court, Pfister still did what he could to help the team, which meant applying his leadership abilities into the task of being an extra assistant coach for the time he was out.
MSU finished those two weekends without their leader with a 2-2 mark, including wins over No. 58 Nebraska and No. 71 Iowa. Pfister returned in time to help MSU defeat No. 74 Wisconsin on April 11.
"His best leadership was going about business and doing things the right way, all the time," Orlando said. "Not just some of the time, but all the time. At the end of the day, that speaks volumes. He might not have been the first guy that's been rah-rah, in your face, and we're going to run through that brick wall, but he'll show you, he'll do it. To be honest with you, I've been very impressed with how he was coaching, how much he was really engaged and I saw a different side. Just his emotion and his energy and relating with the guys, it was different from being a captain."
With just one regular-season weekend remaining for the Spartans and then postseason play, Pfister's time in Green and White is coming to a close. His competitive tennis career for the time being is coming to a close as well, as the finance major has accepted a full-time position with Brown & Brown Insurance in the Detroit area following his graduation.
Looking back on Pfister's career, Orlando is quick to the trigger in pointing out Pfister was the "one who put us on the map" in terms of the collegiate tennis landscape. It's not just his head coach who anoints him with that claim, it's others outside of the program who recognize Pfister's significance to the program as well. Pfister has been a part of 59 overall wins, including 20 conference wins, during his four years. Every year from his freshman to his senior year, MSU has been nationally ranked inside the top 50 at multiple points during each season.
"I've heard that from other people too, even outside the program, which I always really appreciate," Pfister said. "That was a goal of mine when Coach recruited me. I did see the opportunity , I recognized the opportunity and I wanted in on it. I didn't think I could be the guy but I thought I could be part of the change. I just knew I wanted to get better and I wanted to help the program get better and put us on the map a little, just a little bit even. I'm always very humbled when I hear people say that. I try not to think about that but maybe now or starting in a month from now, I'll think more about it and reflect on it. It's something I'll always be proud of and humbled by, it means a lot to me."
Pfister's gentle-giant presence both on and off the court next season will undoubtedly be missed. During the team banquet on March 29, his teammates over and over repeated how much they would miss this year's senior class and how much of a positive impact Pfister has had on their lives.
The program player may be graduating, but his leadership abilities and the successful efforts he made to make Michigan State tennis a program to be reckoned with on the national scene will never graduate.