MICHIGAN CITY — In the middle of the huddle stood a hefty, broad-shouldered six-foot-plus Dante Morland, sporting a beard and a brown ponytail flowing out the back of his navy and gold “Play like a champion today” Notre Dame hat.
As his teammates crouched and swayed back and forth in unison, Morland led his team in a chant that started as a faint hush and rose to a booming yell. At what seemed like peak volume, Morland stood tall, tilted his head back and belted out over all the noise, “We are,” followed by his teammates all together, “City!”
This was repeated three times before Morland — one of Michigan City boys tennis’ two senior team captains — gave a motivational speech prior to the Wolves’ match against county rival La Porte.
Out of context, this scene could very well be depicted as a football player pumping up his team before a big game. Morland certainly looks like he could handle himself on the gridiron with his frame. It’s one of the reasons he’s not your typical tennis player.
As to how he got his start in the sport, “That’s a funny story, actually,” Morland said, laughing. “I’m a theater geek, born and bred.”
Theater is one of the last things anyone expects to hear in regards to how someone got into a sport. Theater geeks aren’t supposed to participate in athletics, let alone become varsity team captains. But Morland isn’t your typical theater geek.
Tommy Komay, one of City’s young tennis players three years back, took up theater his sophomore year when Morland was a freshman. The two became close friends as a result, and after Morland introduced Komay to one of his passions, it was time for Komay to do the same for Morland.
On a nice summer day following Morland’s freshman year, Komay asked his new theater buddy to play some tennis. It couldn’t hurt to do something active outdoors, considering most of Morland’s hobbies at the time consisted of acting and playing video games inside.
“After we got done playing, Tommy was like, ‘Dude, you’re actually kinda good. You could play for us,’” said Morland, still seemingly astounded by this. “And I decided to go out for the team.”
Morland had one concern with pursuing tennis, though, and it stemmed from the avenue in which he and Komay met: Theater.
He was tentative on how a theater geek joining a sports team would go over. Would they treat him as a nerd, an outcast, as someone they deemed not cool enough to talk to, let alone be teammates with?
That stereotype really worried Morland, and for good reason. In movies, TV shows and other mediums, theater geeks get talked down to, beat up and ridiculed senselessly when they cross paths with athletes.
Seeing that negative relationship rehearsed over and over, Morland had every right to be a little worried about integrating into the athletic world.
“But all the seniors were all great when I came,” Morland said. “All the other guys were super nice, too. They were a big reason why I loved playing tennis.”
Morland’s sophomore and junior years were his first two on the tennis team, and they were just what he needed: A nice break in between school and homework, providing him with an activity that got him moving around and socializing, as opposed to just sitting at home playing video games.
That’s all it really was to him at the time, though. An activity. Something fun to pass the time. Things changed midway through his junior season, though.
“I had fun those couple of years, but after seeing Tommy be captain (when I was a junior), I realized that’s what I wanted to do,” Morland said. “Tommy was always very uplifting. He was always loud, always there for everyone, and I was like, ‘I wanna be that kind of captain.’ He put in all the work and never skimped on the running. No matter how his day was, he was always doing everything he could. And that’s how I wanted to be.”
And that’s exactly how Morland is.
Whether he’s vocally uplifting his team during a tough match, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Let’s go guys! Let’s go City!” or flipping tires on the football field to set a hard-working precedent for the rest of the team, Morland is the exact type of captain he wanted to be.
“If I’m going to war, I want Dante on my side,” said Michigan City coach Michael Tsugawa. “He’s always reliable. He’s the one that gets there early and stays late, asking if there’s anything I need him to get done to prepare. Dante embraces that leadership role of being in front of people, he works hard and is a great leader for our team.”
Morland is everything he set out to be now in his senior season, and he has theater of all things to thank for his success in tennis. Who would’ve thunk a theater geek built like a football player would be the leader a Michigan City tennis team needed?
But then again, Morland isn’t your typical theater geek or your typical tennis player. He’s uniquely himself, and Tsugawa and the Wolves wouldn’t want it any other way.