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VOL. 39 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 20, 2015

Former Ravenwood star's death looms over UT’s tennis season

By Dave Link

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Sean Karl, formerly the top-ranked 16-year-old in the nation, was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, a month before signing with Tennessee. After a year of treatment, he played the fall season for the Vols, winning five matches before the cancer returned. He died in November, two years after the initial diagnosis.

-- Andrew Bruckse/Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE – Tennessee senior Mikelis Libietis sits on the bench before a match on Court 1 at Goodfriend Indoor Tennis Center and is reminded of one of his greatest losses.

Not a tennis match.

Court 1 is named “Sean Karl Court” in memory of Brentwood’s Sean Karl, former UT tennis player who died Nov. 16, 2014 of cancer. He was 20.

Libietis, UT’s No. 1 singles player, feels a calming effect before an indoor match when he sees Karl’s name in big orange letters beside the net posts.

“It’s nice when I sit down,” Libietis says. “My bench is right there, and I see, ‘Sean Karl Court.’ It feels good.”

Players and coaches are still coping with the death of Karl. It was not sudden.

In October of 2012, Karl, a three-time Class AAA singles champion at Brentwood’s Ravenwood High School, began having back pain during a tennis tournament. He went to see a doctor and was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare type of tissue and bone cancer predominantly seen in adolescents and young adults.

The news stunned the tennis community across the country. Everyone knew Karl. He was No. 1 in the nation at age 16. He was the nation’s sixth-ranked recruit in the 2012 signing class.

A month after his cancer diagnosis, Karl signed with UT on Nov. 15, 2012, and soon began months of radiation and chemotherapy. Then his comeback began.

Karl was cleared to play before the 2013 fall season. He won five matches, but in November his cancer was back.

Libietis and senior teammate Hunter Reese were coming off the court after losing the doubles final of the USTA/ITA National Indoors when they heard Karl’s cancer had returned.

“It came at such a weird time,” Reese recalls. “I was actually still on the court. We both pulled our phones out, and Sean had texted us and told us the news.

“That just kind of wiped the match out of my memory. Both of us immediately, we didn’t break down, but were pretty much as low as you could get, so that was tough, but we were happy to get back here and start working towards recovery.”

Part of the recovery included team meetings each week to discuss how everyone was handling the situation, including Karl. Knoxville’s Ben Testerman, former world-class tennis player and volunteer assistant with UT’s team, began organizing those meetings.

The tatoo on Hunter Reese’s wrist serves as a reminder of Sean Karl’s short life. Reese is a senior member of the UT tennis team.

-- Dave Link | The Ledger

“Ben came to me and talked about, ‘Let’s sit down together weekly because it is going to affect everybody, and we need to pull together and support each other,’ ” UT coach Sam Winterbotham says.

“Ben spearheaded that. We just made some ground rules as a coaching staff: ‘This is about Sean. It had nothing to do with tennis, and we have guys with different backgrounds, different walks of life, so we also wanted to be aware of them as they went through this process.’

“So those are the two ground rules that we had. Ben just took over, and guys really took over and took it to heart, those meetings from November 2013 for that next year. We met as a group. It was just an amazing experience.

As Karl went through his second round of treatments, he was never far from his teammates. He took part in team practices during non-treatment weeks, cheered the Vols during their 2014 NCAA tourney run and watched Reese and Libietis win the NCAA doubles title in Athens, Ga.

Karl grew tired of talking about his cancer. He wanted only to be Sean Karl. Not the guy with cancer.

“He was always positive,” Libietis recalls. “He had a different mindset to life, and that’s what I love in him, just always smiling, always asking about how everyone else is doing. Doesn’t care about really himself. He wanted to give the happiness to other people, so that was my biggest thing that I saw in Sean that I would like to change in myself.”

Libietis began the 2014 fall semester as Karl’s roommate in an apartment complex within walking distance of Goodfriend Indoor Tennis Center. Karl continued taking classes and taking part in practices even while taking cancer treatments.

Then his condition worsened. Karl spent the late stages of his life at Testerman’s home, and UT’s players visited often.

“Even to the very end, the last time I saw him (three days before his death), he was just in agony, but he was just Sean,” Reese says. “He wanted to be around the guys on the team, everyone, and he just wouldn’t let on till the very end. He was dying, and you just wouldn’t know it.”

Reese has a permanent reminder of Karl on his left wrist. His tattoo includes “Sean” with Karl’s date of birth and death.

“What he meant to each and every guy was different, but special in every way,” Reese said. “Everyone was so close with him. He was like losing a best friend, but the whole process of it was something I’ll always remember. Just going through that with someone you care about. His outlook on life was so special, so positive all the time.”

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