From walk-on to captain, UNC men’s tennis’ Ladd Harrison learns to ‘star in his role’
Ladd Harrison leaned against the metal railing in the bleachers next to Court Five, watching as his teammates played below him.
Every so often, he would shout one of their nicknames or words of encouragement, as the bottom half of the North Carolina men’s tennis team’s lineup seemed to lack energy against Virginia Tech.
Once the senior felt his friends were in a solid position, Harrison would speed walk up to the upper three courts and would repeat the same process.
He moved like a proud dad on Sunday, just like he has throughout his UNC career. While he hasn't played in the lineup as often as his co-captains, his presence is always known as he cheers on his team.
What most people might not know is that even though Harrison is one of three team captains and is on a partial scholarship, he started as a walk-on. It almost wasn’t like this.
But through the example his four siblings and parents set and his perseverance, Harrison’s UNC dream became reality and he learned how to star in his role.
“Maybe you're not the guy whose number has been called that day, but the one thing that you can do is 100 percent back up your teammate, and if his number’s called that day, that is the guy,” Harrison said. “You can live through him.
“And if he gets the job done, or whoever gets the job done if it says ‘UNC wins’ at the end of the day, that’s everything.”
Like father, like son(s)
There goes Ladd again, chasing after his older brothers with his iconic, wide smile stretched across his face.
“If there was a ball involved, whether it was a golf ball or a tennis ball or a football, he just wanted to go,” Ladd’s mother Judy said. “Wherever the older boys were, that's where he wanted to be.”
There’s five kids total with two sets of twins – Charlie, the oldest by seven-and-a-half years; twins Beau and Jamie, who are five years older than the last set of twins Wendy and Ladd. The age gap didn’t provide any barriers with these close-knit siblings, especially among the boys.
“He's very much a younger brother in the fact that he looks up to myself and looks up to my twin brother and my older brother, as well,” Beau said. “And we are kind of in the same boat where we look at him as we can kind of take him under our wing a little bit and kind of steer him in the right direction.”
They helped shape each other. Ladd got his finance taste from Jamie and his desire to pursue higher level sports from Charlie.
As for Beau, Ladd still seeks his advice for almost everything.
But, it’s his father Ponder that Ladd is most alike because he too leads by example. He put family first, as seen by the two year stretch where Ponder flew from Atlanta to Nevada for work during the week and caught the red eye home so that he could see his kids’ sporting events on the weekend.
“That's the person I want to be when I grow up,” Ladd said. “Like it's just unreal.”
‘Blue chip day’
The date was July 17, 2016.
Classes were starting in a short three weeks, and Ladd and Wendy were preparing to be separated for the first time in their lives. Wendy was already headed to Ole Miss to study education while Ladd would follow in Beau’s footsteps to Furman as a collegiate tennis player, where Ladd committed after being waitlisted to UNC.
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Right as the twins were leaving for a Luke Bryan concert with their friends, Ladd’s phone vibrated. For months, he had been waitlisted to UNC and his stomach dropped at the email that said his admission status had been updated.
“He threw me his phone and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what does it mean?’” Wendy said. “I said, ‘I don’t know, log in.’”
As he logged into ConnectCarolina, he froze as he read his acceptance letter.
“He was really taken back and kind of confused for a couple seconds,” Wendy said. “And then he was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
Meanwhile, Judy and Ponder were flying home from a trip to Portland, Maine. As the couple was walking down the jetway, the two were discussing a reservation they had for The Carolina Inn one weekend in the fall, and Ponder reminded Judy that she needed to cancel the reservation since Ladd was headed to Furman.
But she had a strong feeling she needed to keep the reservation despite her husband’s reminders.
Not even an hour later, Judy’s phone rang. It was Ladd, sharing the news that his dream had come true.
“She turns around and she didn't tell me what he said,” Ponder said. “She looked at me and she said, ‘I told you. I told you we need to keep those Carolina Inn reservations.’
“...that was a blue chip day for him.”
The next day, Ladd called UNC men’s tennis head coach Sam Paul and associate head coach Tripp Phillips and asked them what to do. The duo said to give them a few days to talk it over. Eventually, they called Ponder.
“They said, ‘If you’re serious about doing this, it won’t be easy, but we’ll give him a walk-on spot,’” Ladd recounted. “... They are just the best people in the world to let someone just come in out of nowhere like that. That's just unreal.”
‘Heartbeat of the team’
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Atlanta native since he arrived at UNC in 2016. As a walk-on, he wasn’t part of the travel roster and had to work to earn his spot.
“The first two (matches), I didn't go,” Ladd said. “One was to Vanderbilt, one was to Illinois. I vividly remember it because I was so mad that I wasn't traveling.”
Rather than sulking, the first-year went to work. He would go to the tennis center while the team traveled, grab the green box ball machine, and turn the cameras on so Paul would get a notification with the film of Ladd’s training sessions.
“I would basically do three hours at a time alone when the team was gone and just ripping balls on the ball machine, looking at the camera like, ‘Coach Paul, are you seeing this?’” Ladd said.
His hard work and dedication started to pay off. Teammates advocated to Paul for Ladd to be a part of the traveling squad, and eventually, he was. As Ladd started to mark off his other personal goals, like playing in a duals match, he remained fixated on how he could help the team, whether it was helping pick up balls, warm up a teammate while doubles matches were happening or cheering them on.
“He’s innately curious and very hungry to learn how he can use his talents to better serve others, whether that's just in a social setting, on the tennis court, helping out his team,” Jamie said. “Really just making himself fully available kind of in any capacity to continue to better serve and help and to enhance the situation for those around him wherever that may be.”
Ladd’s older brother went a step further to say that his youngest sibling is “the heartbeat of the team.” And his teammates agree.
“He definitely sets the tone for us on the morning workouts,” senior Josh Peck said. “He's always, always there, always prepared to work hard. He stars in his role. If he's not playing in the lineup then, there are things that he needs to do that gets some of the guys prepared for their matches.
“And that's just as important as playing in the matches.”
Those early mornings and late nights paid off. Now, he’s a team captain and on scholarship, both of which came as no surprise to his friends and family members.
“For him coming in really being at the bottom of our lineup to earning everyone's respect and earning the right to be a captain, I think it’s an unbelievable honor and that his peers believe in him and respect him,” senior William Blumberg said. “...It’s awesome for us to watch.”
“...He’s now fully believing in himself as a tennis player and fully as a person.”
Ladd said this is the best tennis he’s played in his life, and while his teammates echo that sentiment, what stands out about him is how he leads by example just like his father and older brothers. In the eyes of his team and family, Ladd’s a ‘legend,’ ‘genuine’ and ‘strong.’
“He just reminds me a ton of what we embody, what we want to embody as a team and as a school,” Blumberg said. “No matter what he dedicates 100 percent of what he has to the team. He dedicates his best effort to school, with his family, his religion and different things.
“He's fully in, so I think he embodies really what Carolina means to athletics and the student body.”