Logan Staggs’ phone rang. It was his father, Michael.
Staggs, a freshman on the Northwestern men’s tennis team, had just returned from Norman, Oklahoma, after getting trounced 4-1 by the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament in May.
Staggs described the initial feeling as shock. He was thousands of miles away from California, his home.
“I was like, ‘Okay, what’s the plan?’” Staggs said. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s your call, but I would love it if you would come back to California.’”
His father just revealed to him that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Immediately, Staggs began to consider options for transferring to a school in California so that he could be closer to his father.
Staggs had to talk with his coaches at Northwestern to get released before he was free to talk to any other colleges or coaches. When he was released, the first two programs he contacted were UCLA and California.
Since the news of his father came at the end of the school year, Staggs had to make a quick decision. He chose head coach Billy Martin and UCLA.
“I actually took an unofficial visit here before I committed to Northwestern,” Staggs said and chuckled. “I don’t really remember it, but I’m pretty sure they actually turned me down the first time. So I decided to start looking at colleges out of California.”
Moving to UCLA has been an opportunity for Staggs to spend more time with his family and his father, something that was impossible for him while he was in Evanston, Illinois.
“At Northwestern it was very hard for them to come see me because of expenses,” Staggs said. “Here it’s a lot closer and it’s actually a lot more pleasant to be here than at Northwestern. It’s negative ten outside (there) so also health-wise it’s a lot easier to be here than at Northwestern.”
Fortunately, his father’s condition has been stable since he returned to California. His family has been able to come to UCLA and watch some of his matches.
“He’s doing okay,” Staggs said. “He’s deciding to wait and see if it gets worse or if it’s really not getting worse and he doesn’t have to do anything about it. So right now we’re kind of on a waiting period I would say.”
And while Staggs’ transition to UCLA was untimely and motivated by unfortunate circumstances, his opportunity to work with coach Martin has been a disguised blessing. Staggs was having doubts about his tennis career even before his father told him about his cancer.
“Had (UCLA) or Berkeley not taken me, I was considering the option of just staying at Northwestern and quitting tennis and just continuing on from the academic side,” Staggs said. “I thought, ‘Okay, let me just focus on academics here and just get through it and goodbye tennis.’ But fortunately I was given the option to come here, and it’s brought me back I would say.”
Brought him back is maybe a slight understatement. Staggs, a sophomore, has been an instrumental player for the No. 4 Bruins this season, playing the majority of his time alternating between the No. 4 and No. 5 spot on the singles lineup. The team graduated one senior last year, and he was a much needed addition.
He has played every dual match this season and will be a crucial component to the team as they vie for the 2016 NCAA Division I National Championship in May.
Staggs isn’t the most physically intimidating player – he stands at 5-foot-9. But it is his mental game that allows him to take down taller, stronger opponents easily.
On Feb. 27, Staggs faced No. 114 Maciek Romanowicz when the Bruins visited Stanford, California, for their first dual match of the season against the Cardinal.
Romanowicz – 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds – towered over Staggs on the court. UCLA and Stanford were tied at 3-3 and the winner of the match would take the team victory. But Staggs’ clear size disadvantage didn’t faze him.
After taking the first set 6-4, Staggs broke Romanowicz at 4-3 for a 5-3 lead in the second. Staggs served and took the match over his larger, more physically dominant opponent to give the Bruins the win. This was a big win. Stanford had the most ranked players in the country at the time.
“I don’t give up,” Staggs said. “I always think I’m in it – my will or mental game is probably my greatest attribute.”
About one month later, Staggs faced No. 16 California’s Mads Engsted at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Engsted was of almost identical stature to Romanowicz at 6-foot-1, 176 pounds. Staggs lost the first set to Engsted 6-4, and barely won the second at 7-5. But in a strong showing of mental strength and willpower, Staggs led him 5-1 in the third set before the match was finished off on a different court.
“Logan Staggs – maybe one of the best comebacks in a long time,” Martin said after the match. “I mean, the kid was down and out a set, four love, and he was even down some match points I think at 5-3. Would not be denied.”
And Staggs has embodied this no-quit attitude since he first played competitively at the age of seven in his small hometown of Tracy, just east of San Francisco. Many view him as an underdog. He embraces it.
It was his father who put a racket in his hands at two years old, and he’s been playing ever since.
“I guess his greatest reasoning was that he played basketball in high school, and so he knew that I wasn’t going to be like a big kid and I wasn’t going to be able to really jump either,” Staggs said. “So he was like, ‘I’m going to pick a sport that I think would suit (you) the best.’ And I kept going with it.”
As a youth player and all the way through high school, Staggs didn’t have the resources that many of his opponents had because of his location.
“It’s too far away from pretty much all the other kids, so I would hit with a ball machine usually or my dad would feed me balls for an hour,” Staggs said. “But what I would do is I would play every tournament that I possibly could because I didn’t have anyone to hit with where I was from.”
That didn’t stop him from dominating. UCLA men’s tennis assistant coach Grant Chen remembers watching him as a youth player at the USTA National Winter Championships.
“It was 35 degrees, 8 a.m., out there battling guys 6-foot-3,” Chen said. “He just finds ways to win. He’s an emotional player. He’s a fiery player. You know it’s the whole, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’”
At practice, Staggs looks laid-back and calm, but focused. His every movement seems to communicate an action.
One particular day, he played junior All-American Mackie McDonald in practice. But it didn’t look like a practice match. It looked like he was playing a real match with every ball that he served, every volley that he returned, every point that he whiffed.
“He doesn’t like to lose in anything,” Chen said. “It could be pingpong. It could be anything like that – he doesn’t like to lose.”
Email Levin at [email protected] or tweet @Charles_J_Levin.