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From backyard to NCAA champion

Westhampton Beach High School senior Dillon Pottish returns

Westhampton Beach High School senior Dillon Pottish returns a volley during the first round of varsity boys' tennis singles state championships at the National Tennis Center. (May 31, 2007) Credit: James A. Escher

Growing up in Westhampton Beach, 2012 Division III tennis champion Dillon Pottish had to travel all over the tri-state area to compete.

"I was never able to stay in Suffolk to improve my game," said Pottish, who competed for Emory University.

Much of the game he sought to improve, however, was developed on a backyard court in Riverhead at the home of a periodontist.

Dr. Gary Brenner, who works full-time in periodontics, sees his dental work as a means to pay the bills but considers coaching tennis "my soul." He began working with Pottish when Pottish was in sixth grade and immediately began to instill a workhorse mentality in him.

"The first time I got him on the court, I wanted to see if he liked to run," Brenner said. "I chased him corner to corner with balls for like an hour, and he saw that's what I'm all about. I just believe in working your -- -- off. If you can't run seven hours a day, you can't play tennis."

Pottish can. Brenner created the hardest-working player that John Browning said he has ever coached.

"His work ethic really changed my perspective on a lot of stuff," said Browning, Pottish's coach at Emory, the Atlanta school that won the national Division III championship in May. "I picked up a lot of stuff from him and realized that we need to change our practice regimen to make it more intense."

During Pottish's college career, Brenner said he never stopped coaching his star pupil "via airwaves." Brenner, who teaches technique through the use of photos and images, said he would send Pottish hundreds of photos over the Internet during the season and would speak to him on the phone before or after every match.

"He knows my game better than anyone," Pottish said. "So if I told him I'm not hitting my forehand well or not serving well, he knows exactly the problem. He can tell me on the phone exactly what I have to do; he doesn't have to be there."

Brenner traveled to Cary, N.C., in May to watch Pottish compete in the national championship in Division III. In 2011, Pottish reached the singles final, only to be defeated by Emory teammate Chris Goodwin.

"I'll never forget going into Dillon's hotel room afterward with his parents and sister there," Browning said. "It was like walking into a morgue, like somebody just died."

Earlier in the week leading up to the final, Pottish was hospitalized with a full body cramp during the team semifinal, but he came back to help Emory win the team national championship. He competed in eight team and individual matches without losing to reach the final for a second straight year.

Pottish split the first two sets against Nicholas Ballou of Cal Lutheran. As the deciding third set was about to begin, Pottish's longtime coach gave him one more push.

"I screamed to him, 'It's the last set of your college career; you better play!' " Brenner said.

After losing the second set 6-1, Pottish heeded his coach's words, winning the final set 6-2. He said he was thrilled to redeem himself.

"I had that feeling of losing in the finals the previous year," he said. "It was my goal from the start of the season, so it was great to accomplish it."

Pottish's victory also served as a dream come true for a certain Riverhead periodontist.

"I stated to myself in dental school, I wrote it down in my yearbook, that I wanted to create the NCAA champion," Brenner said. "And we did it."

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