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There's a method to DiSaia's (March) Madness as Waterford boys' tennis begins its season

It was a different kind of March Madness that began a few minutes before midnight Friday at the Waterford High School tennis courts.

The Waterford boys' tennis team was taking a few warmup laps before it could officially begin practice as the clock struck midnight on Saturday, March 19.

It's not all that unusual to hear 14th-year Waterford coach Ralph DiSaia to tell his players to get on the court to hit groundstrokes or for him to tell a player — in this case, alumnus Willie Dong, who came back to join in the festivities — not to run around his backhand.

But, midnight?

“I've been waiting to do this for years,” said DiSaia, who took advantage of the CIAC spring practice schedule beginning on a Saturday to ask his school's administrators for permission.

“(The kids) were really positive. I tried to incorporate the whole thing with Midnight Madness, March Madness, that whole kind of madness concept, overdosing on athletics. I came up with all sorts of slogans, like 'Friday Night Lights.'”

It was 39 degrees as Friday (DiSaia's 67th birthday) ended and Saturday, and real tennis, began.

There was a doubles match between Dong and senior Mike Gianakos against senior Camiren Carter and sophomore James Zhu. A singles match followed between Dong, last year's No. 1 singles player, and Carter, this year's heir apparent. There were lobs and overheads.

DiSaia had T-shirts made to commemorate the occasion.

“I thought it could be a good idea,” said Carter, who transferred to the school last year from his former home in Atlanta. “It was a way to get the team motivated. It was definitely fun seeing Willie (a freshman who plays for the UConn club team) again. … It was tough getting out of bed. I went to sleep around 10. I hit the snooze button a couple times.”

DiSaia himself spent Friday getting ready for this weekend's Connecticut Spring Antiques Show in Hartford, participating in a television interview to promo the event. (He and his wife Karen own Oriental Rugs, Ltd. In Old Lyme).

DiSaia, whose team is the defending Eastern Connecticut Conference Medium Division champion, is 212-22 overall in his career. He says with a laugh that he plans to stay until his 3-year-old grandson Carter, who lives in Canada, can do a “junior year abroad” and come to play for Ralph at Waterford.

“(Athletic director) Dave Sousa said, 'That's another 15 years,'” DiSaia said. “I said, 'your point?'”

DiSaia can be straight-laced, reminding his players to take their work seriously Saturday. But, he also obviously enjoys coaching, cracking jokes and finding ways to keep the game fun.

“The kids are great kids and I enjoy watching them grow up,” DiSaia said.

“Every year I get back to talking to the kids. I said to Camiren, 'Where are you going to school?' He said, 'I'm waiting to hear from Yale and Stanford.' I said, 'Where did you get in?' 'Harvard.' I said, 'It's always nice to have a backup school.'”

DiSaia kept his plan for midnight practice under wraps from his colleagues in the ECC, he said.

“I didn't want someone to copy,” he said with a laugh.

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