A late introduction to tennis still leads to coaching job for Dartmouth’s DeSanto


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-24-2023 10:43 PM

Justin DeSanto had never picked up a tennis racket until halfway through his senior year of high school.

Growing up in Pittston, Pa., DeSanto played basketball, football and volleyball and ran track in his youth, but he wanted to try something different for his last year. Having quit the basketball team as a sophomore, he decided it was time to try tennis, and he fell in love with it right away.

“I thought I was athletic enough to make our starting lineup even though I only had a few months to do it, and I did,” DeSanto said. “I started taking lessons pretty frequently, and then worked my way up through giving lessons to little kids, high school, Division III and then Division I.”

Fifteen years later, DeSanto has made a living out of the sport he discovered at age 17. Despite not making the team at Wilkes University, near his hometown, DeSanto embarked on a career in college coaching immediately after he graduated in 2012, and earlier this month, he was named the new head men’s tennis coach at Dartmouth College.

DeSanto’s inexperience — he’d been playing for less than a year when he started college — kept him off the team at Wilkes, but he stayed involved with his new favorite sport by coaching high school tennis for three of his college years. The high school team he coached had not won a match in three years when he joined the staff, but DeSanto helped them improve to 8-4 by his third season.

His first college coaching job kept him in northeast Pennsylvania as an assistant for the women’s team at Marywood University, and he joined the Division I ranks a year later as a women’s volunteer assistant at Yale. Following his year at Marywood, DeSanto worked at a Wilson tennis camp and met Adam Schaechterle, now the men’s coach at Pepperdine, and Schaechterle recognized his potential as a Division I coach, pointing him toward the volunteer role.

“I thought that was going to be the end goal for me, to continue working at the club with the little kid groups and coaching Division III,” DeSanto said. “It was obviously a huge shock to the system, not knowing the Division I level and how the programs were run. But it was really my time at Yale, and after that at Williams, that really showed me how to be the CEO of a program and really dig into all the important things.”

DeSanto returned to D-III for two years as an assistant for both the men’s and women’s team at Williams College, where under his tutelage the Ephs won the women’s national title in 2015 and were runners-up in 2016. Williams men’s head coach Dan Greenberg was somewhat concerned about DeSanto still being a relative newcomer to the sport, but said that was also part of the appeal of bringing him on.

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“Most coaches in this industry, especially young coaches, are coming from a really strong tennis background, which Justin did not have,” Greenberg said. “But he was honest about that. What was cool was in spite of that lack of tennis background, he had done everything he could to position himself to be a college coach.”

In 2016, DeSanto took on his first paid Division I job, joining the men’s staff at Wichita State. During his five years in Wichita, the Shockers cracked the top 30 in the national rankings, their highest mark in more than 30 years, and DeSanto parlayed that success into his first head coaching opportunity in 2021 at Alabama-Birmingham. UAB won just eight matches in DeSanto’s first season, then improved to 21-7 this past spring, with three Blazers earning all-Conference USA accolades. Despite the momentum DeSanto had going in Birmingham, the chance to return to the Northeast — and the Ivy League — was too good for him to pass up, and he took the Big Green job less than two weeks after previous coach Xander Centenari, a 2013 Dartmouth graduate, stepped down.

“There’s going to be a heavy focus on development,” DeSanto said. “What we’ve seen across the Ivy League is a lot of kids come in and truly develop and reach a different level in college tennis. I can’t speak for what was going on before me in terms of player development, but that’s going to be a big piece of it for me, developing the guys we have.”

Men’s tennis is one of the Ivy League’s strongest sports — Harvard and Columbia were both in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association top 15 entering the 2023 NCAA Tournament, Cornell was No. 41 and Penn and Princeton were just outside the top 50. Dartmouth spent most of the 2010s in the top half of the conference, winning the title in 2018, but the Big Green have finished 1-6 in Ivy play in each of the last two seasons since returning from the pandemic.

All eight players from the 2023 team are returning, joined by a pair of incoming freshmen, so that player development piece will be critical especially before DeSanto gets his own recruits to Hanover.

“Most of the advantages are back in place to help us. Putting us in a top-50 position pretty soon and trying to compete for an NCAA berth, I think that’s very attainable,” DeSanto said. “The recruits coming in are great, and the guys there are great. They’re at a perfect base level for what we need to do to push to finally move up in the Ivy League.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.