MHSTeCA COACH OF THE YEAR - 2015
(click on coach's name to read more about them)
DIVISION - COACH
DIVISION - COACH
|1 - Brian Miska, Troy||1 - Greg Burks, Bloomfield Hills|
|2 - Lincoln Wirgau, Birmingham Mirian||2 - Will Sophiea, Holly|
|3 - Andrew Schrand, Yale|
|4 - Judy Hehs, Academy of the Sacred Heart||4 - Eric Gajar, Ann Arbor Greenhills|
Brian Miska, Troy - Division 1
Having finished in sixth place at last year's state tournament, Brian Miska's squad was primed and ready for a serious improvement in the 2015 final standings but misfortune got in the way. The team lost its 1S player for the season due to a hand injury and the returning second singles player decided not to play.
"The team knew that we took some major hits," he says, "but they never doubted that they could put together a successful season. Even with the loss of key players, they still kept their goal the same of matching last year's finish in the state. I was proud of their work ethic and refuse-to-quit attitude that they kept all season long. This was one of the most successful seasons I have had as a coach considering how much adversity the team had to face."
The Colts finished at 7-4 in the dual, 3rd in the OAA Red Division, and 2nd in the regional behind Grosse Pointe South. They ended the campaign once again at sixth in the state.
"The reason we finished so high was simple," he says. "The girls loved tennis. I've never coached a girls team that wanted to be on the court more. Every day they came to practice ready to work, have fun, and improve their game. When a team has that kind of attitude, it is impossible not to get better and do well."
It also helps to have a good coach with a tennis history in the area. Brian played JV tennis for Warren Block (Hall of Fame Class of 2005) before graduating to the varsity under coach Andrew Shipp (Coach of the Year - 2011). "He started his high school tennis career near the bottom of JV, but he worked his way up, and by senior year, he was captain at #1 varsity doubles," says Andrew.
To be sure, the work ethic has continued. "He spends a lot of time working with his players in the off-season in their development," says Andrew, "and he also works with a number of players from other schools including his alma mater, Troy Athens. He demands a lot from his players but they want to work hard and play hard for him. They typically finish near the top five or ten in the state."
Actually, Troy girls have finished in the top ten in every season Brian has coached them except one — 2013 - when they finished 11th. Part of the reason for this success is his pursuit of strong competition. He hosts one or two tournaments each season and the league tournament every other year.
His boys team, no slouches, have finished as high as third in the state (2014). Together his teams have brought home four regional trophies and the boys have won four league titles, no small achievement given the level of competition.
"Troy High is in our regional and we have a friendly rivalry with them," says Mark Sobieralski of Grosse Pte South, whose team finished third in the state this year. "Brian is an excellent doubles coach. I always can tell how good a coach is by how they play doubles. He is one of our good young coaches in the state."
He also helps his team and others by hosting one or two tournaments each season and manages the league tournament every other year.
His sideline demeanor can be intense," says Andrew, "but he can joke around with the best of them. Mark agrees. "After our matches and the regionals we always go out and have a beer and talk about the match."
"When I first started working at Troy High, I appreciated the tradition and reputation of the program, the motivated players, and supportive families and knew that this was the place I wanted to be for a long time," says Brian.
Given that these kids are led by a state coach of the year makes the feeling mutual.
Lincoln Wirgau, Birmingham Marian - Division 2
Looking back at our 3rd place finish is great;' says Lincoln Wirgau, "but you are a little upset when you walk away because the team was so close."
After all, Marian finished the season at an undefeated 15-0-2. The two ties were against Birmingham Seaholm and Forest Hills Northern. The finish at the state tournament: 1. Birmingham Seaholm, 2. Forest Hills Northern, 3 Bloomfield Hills Marian.
But Lincoln coaches a team that is used to coming close if not winning the state title outright. Indeed, third place is not strange territory. In the five years he has coached the squad, the Mustangs have finished third each season with one exception: a state championship in 2013.
Actually, Lincoln can take solace in the fate of one his predecessors, Julie Mcknight (Hall of Fame Class of 1999.) In her 20 years at the helm of the Mustangs, Julie's teams came in second an astounding 5 times. Some of them were heartbreakingly close, twice by one point. They lost the title on the final point in a tiebreak in 1980 (a high forehand volley that was out by an inch), and in 1996, by one match, a three set loss. A state title eluded her.
Dan Bittner, the last Marian state coach of the year, left the program after capturing the final tournament championship. At that time, Lincoln contacted Dan, they talked, Lincoln interviewed, he got the job, and wasted no time keeping up the good work.
Under Lincoln's leadership, Marian has captured five Catholic League titles, two outright regional championships, and two shared. In fact, at this year's regional, Lincoln's girls tied with for the title with Birmingham Seaholm, the eventual state champion.
To be sure, by almost any standard it was an excellent year. Lincoln's squad beat Cranbrook Kingswood twice and East Grand Rapids. They also defeated Division 4 state champion Sacred Heart Academy. At the East Grand Rapids Tournament, they triumphed over East, Holland Christian, and Kingswood. In other words, they play some of the best teams in the state and they come out on top.
"Too often coaches in the "tennis areas" are not given enough credit," says Will Sophiea of Holly. "While Lincoln did take over a program that had recently won the state championship, he works extremely hard year-round to keep Marian at the very peak of high school tennis in Michigan. He is one of my favorite coaches to work with. He is fair and honest, yet competitive and fiery at the same time."
Lincoln grew up in Chesaning where he played high school tennis under head coach Dave Gaspar and assistant Randy Michaelis (Assistant Coach Award in 2005). A teaching pro at Birmingham Racquet Club, he is very much involved with the kids and their parents, a very wise practice given the high pressure situation with elevated expectations.
The adjective that one board member used to describe Lincoln is feisty. Given his drive and Marian's tradition, Division 2 opponents can expect this coach of the year to be at the door of another state championship again and again.
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Anrew Schrand, Yale - Division 3
“I got started playing tennis when I was 9 or 10,” says Andrew Schrand who grew up in Armada. "I had the great fortune to have Dave Fredette (Hall of Fame Class of 1990) running the tennis lessons in Armada where I grew up. He made it fun, and also made us very competitive in the area and in the state."
An excellent student academically, Andrew played No. 1 Doubles for Dave during his junior and senior years. "He held the most doubles wins for Armada for over ten years," says Dave, "and is still among the top doubles players and winners ever at our school. While we did not win the regional in either year, we finished fifth and seventh at the state in Class C-D."
After college at MSU, Andrew got a job at Yale and became the assistant tennis coach before taking over the boys program in 1994. In 1997 he started a girls team and has been the coach ever since: 18 years.
"His players are not club players whose parents spend a lot of money on their tennis," says Dave. "And he first had to compete against Dean Sousanis (Almont - Hall of Fame Class of 1996) and Dave Clutts (St. Clair - Coach of the Year in 2009). "His girls know what they are doing on the courts. They look like tennis players who are well-coached and disciplined.
This is to be admired. As with several programs in his area, Andrew starts with many girls who have never picked up a racquet. For obvious reasons, he runs a no-cut program and can have as many as 25 kids on the squad.
He describes spring 2015 as wet. "Many of our non-league matches were rained out which shortened our season considerably," he says. "But at regionals, we were well prepared and were able to get some seeds at key places. Taking first was St. Clair, and we tied both Armada and Warren Regina for second place."
That meant a trip to the state tournament."This was our third trip to the state finals," he says. "The big match of the season came at the regionals. My 2S was seeded 4 and was able to the beat the one seed, giving us the extra point we need to tie Armada and Warren Regina for second place. That and everyone else holding their seeds throughout the tourney made the difference.
As it turns out, Yale ended third in the league behind Richmond and Almont and tied with Almont four times: in the dual, at the league tournament, at the regionals, and at the final tournament.
All of this has not gone unnoticed and unappreciated. After laboring for so many years on substandard courts, they were upgraded last summer. "We were playing on five courts that were built in the mid 1970s," Andrew says. "These courts were torn up and six new ones replaced them. We are very pleased. We just got a pavilion put up and will be placing picnic tables in the spring." To be sure, this is a gesture of support to the school's tennis coach who has taught math and science at the school for 30 years.
Andrew hosts the Yale Doubles Tournament every year, a unique affair wherein three schools are invited. Because of the limited facilities, all 12 players play doubles in ranked ability in a round robin format. "It ends up being a very fun day with kids playing with new partners, singles players playing doubles, and a lot of good team building," he says. "This year, we had Port Huron Northern B Team, Bad Axe, and Goodrich." In other words, a creative way to generate interest.
Indeed, Andrew's efforts represent many tennis coaches throughout the state who make the difference between having varsity tennis or not. "He is one of the many grass roots coaches in our sport who don't produce great teams," says Dave. "But he instills in his players a love for the game."
"He has put together many quality teams with little resources in Yale," says Mike Finton of Almont, himself a coach of the year. "You know that his girls will be well coached and exhibit good sportsmanship. He has done a very good job in a school that pulls most of its female athletes into softball, soccer, and track."
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Judy Hehs, Academy of the Sacred Heart - Division 4
In 2011, the Sacred Heart tennis team under Judy Hehs finished 2nd in the state. "They were hungry to win the state championship the following year," she says. "Sure enough, they did."
"In 2013, we had enough returning players to mentor the up and coming players," she continues. The result: Another state title.
In 2014, the squad was largely inexperienced but hard working and fun, and for the most part competitive. Nevertheless, the result was a sixth place finish at the state finals.
That laid the foundation for 2015. In addition, "We were graced by the appearance of four 9th graders who complimented a more seasoned group of players," says Judy. "And it helped that our #1 singles player returned from her two years in Florida, living with her dad and training." The result: a rhetorical question, it seems. That made three state championships and 12 Top Ten finishes since 1996.
To be sure, the quest is never easy but the Gazelles came to the final tournament well prepared. After all, they play in the Catholic League against Bloomfield Hills Marian and associate member Cranbrook Kingswood. They finished third in duals and second at the league tournament where Cranbrook cannot participate. They also played University Liggett, Ann Arbor Greenhills, and Detroit Country Day. "We love playing 'out state,' as it is referred to when we're not playing in Oakland County," she says. "We love the travel experience and the overnight experience.”
It is character building and team building to figure out how to live with one another and how to be supportive of one another, all the while managing your homework and your own tennis game."
The character building was impressively evident at the end of the state finals. After each player received her state championship medal from tournament director Jim Cummins (Hall of Fame Class of 1990), she went over to thank assistants Hal Stofer (Class of 1996) and Bruce Grotenhuis (2003). All 12. Each and every one. Hal and Bruce, veterans of state tournaments, marveled.
"It also helps to be principal of the school," noted Co-Coach Jim Slaughter who himself has been a boys coach of the year at U of D Jesuit. He was kidding but there is surely an element of truth (See Bob Wood, Gary Ellis, Eric Gajar).
This Associate Head of School is prominent on many fronts. She has been the tournament director of Division 1, Catholic League from 2004 to the present. She ran the Gazelle Invitational from 2000 to 2013. She served on the MHSAA Rules Committee for many years.
And she is a MHSTeCA board member who, by the way, missed this past October meeting. "it is my College Reunion Homecoming at Kalamazoo College," she e-mailed at the time. "They say it is my 30th reunion, but I swear it's closer to 20. I would jump ship, but I am the class president and in charge of the planning."
Judy played high school tennis for Julie McKnight (H of F Class of 1999) at Marian and tennis at K College where she received instruction from George Acker to correct an admittedly sketchy backhand. She started her 2015 on — to understate — a positive note by being inducted into our Hall of Fame last January.
And that ain't all. Just this past month, Judy learned that she has received a national honor, a coach of the year award from the National Federation of State High School Coaches Associations. Thus, although our award may seem paltry in comparison, it comes from her colleagues, some of whom would rather spread honors around but in this case want to further acknowledge how good she is at what she does.
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Greg Burks, Bloomfield Hills - Division 1
Back in the day, it was bad enough when Oakland County tennis teams had to battle Keith Johnson's powerful Andover squads or Jan Esper's teams at Lahser. But putting the two schools together is a bit like uniting Pioneer and Huron, Forest Hills Central and Northern, or Okemos and East Lansing.
Furthermore, while MHSTeCA board members spent a considerable amount of time last October discussing the diminishment of numbers at the Division 4 level, Greg Burks at Bloomfield Hills High School had just the opposite problem. When the two schools combined three years ago, over 55 kids tried out for the team. "We had a varsity, a JV-A, and a JV-B," he says. "The next year, we had almost 70 kids try out and this year 82. We tried a Varsity B program this season to get improved competition and this allowed seniors who did not make the varsity team a chance to play. They went undefeated this year with the exception of losing to Midland's varsity team.
And that's the B team. Playing some of the strongest competition in the state in their own backyard, Greg's varsity squad went 7-2-2, captured the league and regional championships, and tied for the state title with Novi. "Our team at the state tournament played the best they had played all season," he explains. "Our doubles came through big time; all made the quarters and 4D made the semis. We had five out of eight flights make it to the semis on Saturday and all four singles flights made it to the finals."
"Our singles were the best in the state," he continues. "It takes a lot of the pressure off in dual matches when you start almost every match up four matches; our singles were that good. At one point, they were on a 38-match win streak." Small wonder that all four reached the state championship match in their respective flights.
This is heady stuff but not so unusual given Greg's background. He grew up in Rochester and played high school tennis for Jerry Murphy (Hall of Fame Class of 2010) against Lahser, Adams, Seaholm, Athens, Troy, etc. He played singles his first two years, reaching as high as 2S. "In his junior and senior years, we talked and decided for a number of reasons: (1) he was the best doubles player on the team and (2) we had some very good singles players that he would play 1 doubles," says Jerry. "Over the course of my coaching career, he was one of my greatest doubles players if not the greatest. Even though he had a quiet demeanor, he let his actions do the talking. His teammates recognized his on-court leadership and elected him captain his senior year." Greg led his squad to the state finals in 1998.
"After high school, Greg continued to give back to our community by teaming with another RHS grad, Bill McGarry, to provide the summer tennis program on the Rochester High School courts," says Jerry.
Greg spends his springtime coaching the girls at Rochester Adams, a school with its own history of state championships under Hall of Famer Al Must. "He is respectful of others and demonstrates a likable professionalism in his contact with both peers and players,"says Al. Indeed, the term most often used to describe Greg by colleagues is laid-back.
For his part, Jerry, whose teams play Adams in the spring and Bloomfield Hills in the fall, doesn't often do well against his former player. "Over the last few years, he has definitely had the best of me," he says. "Even though none of us like losing, it takes a little sting out of it when you know the opposing coach is one of the greatest players you've ever had the pleasure of coaching."
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Will Sophiea, Holly - Division 2
This past season, the Holly Broncos set an area record: 93 league victories in a row. With a 6-0 undefeated season, they broke the mark of 90 set by Grand Blanc from 1991-2003. Holly has not lost a Flint Metro dual match since a 4-3 setback at Lapeer West in 1999. And they did it with eight freshmen and sophomores on this year's varsity squad.
Why? "The program has a foundation," explains Will Sophiea. "There are expectations. We know we aren't the best tennis players in the state but no one is going to beat us in the effort category or outcompete us."
That effort was exemplified in their lone dual match loss, a 3-5 non-league defeat at the hands of Whitney Wasielewski's North Farmington squad. The final determining match: a 21-19 tiebreaker. And although the team lost all eight flights to Midland Dow (3rd at the state tournament) in the regional, at the two flights where they were not the number two seed, they upset the number two seed. Holly finished the year at 11th, one point away from their goal of Top Ten.
The tradition of strong tennis goes way back to the days of Bill McDaniel (Hall of Fame Class of 2003). Bill had strong teams that at one point included a certain first singles player who was both league and regional champion. "I was looking at Division 2 and 3 opportunities to play in college;" says Will." I decided to go to Michigan State and play on the club team. The club try-out was a Saturday which was the same day as a Holly Invitational. The night before, I decided I would miss the tryout and drive back to Holly and help coach with Brennan."
Brennan Brown was a major influence in Will's decision to go into tennis coaching. "Before meeting Brennan, always thought I may want to coach after high school," he says. "After meeting Brennan, I was convinced I wanted to coach. He had a incredible way of connecting with all different kinds of kids. A kid that you never would expect to touch a tennis racquet, whether it be a varsity football player or a student who had never tried a sport, Brennan would get him on a tennis court and quickly having the time of his life."
Moreover, it became clear early on that Will would rather coach than play and he has been doing so for eight years (15 seasons) at his alma mater. "I feel I have more influence on an outcome through coaching and can make positive impacts in people's lives;' he says.
As a result, the Holly tradition continues and with plenty of support. For instance, he gets help from Andy LaVigne, a former player who works in Troy and has a wife and two kids, but makes almost every match for boys and girls as a volunteer coach. In addition, former captain, league, and regional champion at 1D, Erik Kahn drives from Lansing where he both works and lives to attend almost every practice and match.
"We are constantly bringing former players back to be a part of our programs in the summer," he says. "These former players are also routinely showing up and supporting us at our tournament during the season."
One secret to Will's success is recruiting good athletes to play this lifetime sport. "It is amazing to see the progression of a new player on a tennis court when it is an athlete compared to a kid who has never played a sport," he says, "We encourage athletes to come join our program even if they never have touched a racquet. Basketball players, soccer players, volleyball players and more make great tennis players."
That impact extends to his coaching colleagues. Will serves on the MHSTeCA board and produces our semiannual electronic newsletter, a duty started by Brennan. His background in an established program, his ability to take the reins and continue its excellence, and the good will (pun intended) that he brings to what he does for high school tennis is abundantly appreciated.
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Jerry Escheck, Carelton Airport - Division 3
This is not a story about conference and regional championships, and trips to the state finals. It is about persistence and love of the game, and an ongoing quest to pass it on. It is about a Mr. Tennis in his particular neck of the woods who can be found at virtually every tournament in the summer, either as a player or more likely as the manager. It is about year-in and year-out struggle to maintain a high school program which would not exist but for his efforts.
First of all, it is fair to say that Jerry Escheck spends a more-than-significant portion of his life running tennis events. After all, he is Director of Tennis and Racquet Sports at the Monroe Family YMCA (a venue used extensively by Hall of Famer Stan Noland when he hosted tournaments as coach of Monroe Catholic Central). Jerry is also an independent contractor in charge of Adult Leagues and Adult Travel Teams at the Fairlane Club in Dearborn.
"Without him, lots of kids would not get a chance to play competitive summer tennis," says Allen Park's Bill Riggs. Indeed, it seems that he is always hosting a tournament. "I run, on average, nine summer park and rec tournaments," he says. "The levels include boys and girls 10s, 12s, 14s, 16s, and 18s singles, as well as boy and girls 18 and under doubles. I also run men's and women's singles, doubles, and mixed, as well as 35 and over, 50 and over categories."
But his work as the varsity coach at Carleton Airport is particularly challenging. You would think that the above would produce a multitude of players but not in this particular community. Jerry points toward the season switch for boys and girls as part of the reason. "We have seen team participation go from 80+ in a single season to a low of seven four years ago," he says. "We have managed to increase numbers from seven to 11 to 13 back to a respectable 17 this past season. One reason for this is our work in the elementary and junior high, creating after school programs and doing week-long in-service instruction during the school year for both students and gym teachers.
However, this is only part of the battle. Back in 1991, Jerry began his program on two (this is not a misprint) concrete courts. In his second year, he utilized the courts at Gibraltar Carlson, even though this involved a daily 30-minute bus trip. "After the third year, the school system put in six tennis courts as we proved with three years of solid numbers that the program was here to stay," he says.
Not so fast. As of Labor Day 2015, the Airport courts have deteriorated to the point where the school liability insurance will no longer cover practice and matches. Past bond issues to help revitalize the facility have failed. "For the boys tennis program, we have turned to our neighbors at New Boston Huron (four courts but no boys program);' he says. "We are currently looking for options for the girls spring season."
Undeterred, Jerry keeps hosting. "I run an 8-team girls preregional the Saturday before regionals," he says. He also hosted a Division 3 regional on Trenton High School's courts this past fall.
Jerry's love of tennis goes way back. "My mom started me off on our driveway: concrete with separate squares to imitate a tennis court," he says. "My 8th grade math teacher recruited me and a few of my friends to play on the high school team. He was the head coach at Monroe Jefferson." Jerry played 3D his freshman year and 1S for the next three years, narrowly missing a trip to the state finals in his junior year. An ACL tear in his left knee cut his senior year short.
But it certainly didn't diminish his enthusiasm; in fact, a good argument could be made that dreams deferred have only served to increase his appetite for the game. Amidst all of his tournament management, he plays on the Men's Open 4.5 Level Team with Rocky Giorgi of Gibraltar Carlson. "We made it to the Midwest Championships twice, nearly missing Nationals by a couple of points in the third set tie breaker," he says.
This is a man totally dedicated to our sport. "I've never met someone who gives of his time so generously," says Bill. "He finishes 5th in his conference and 6th in his regional, yet he is always in there helping out and he has been doing it for 25 years."
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Eric Gajar, Ann Arbor Greenhills - Division 4
There must be something in the water in the Ann Arbor area. At the beginning of the flight state championship era, Gordon Boettcher's Ann Arbor Huron boys teams were among the best in the state. They won four state championships. A bit later came Tom Pullen at Pioneer: 10 state championships (15 more for the girls).
And then there is Eric Gajar at Greenhills. His first state title was in 2003. Since then, his Gryphons have added nine more, the most recent being this past fall. That includes eight consecutive No. 1 finishes. The situation is reminiscent of the days when Bob Wood's University Liggett teams dominated Division 4.
A major reason why Bob was so successful was that he reached out state-wide for the best competition. Eric doesn't have to do that (the water thing again and decidely not from the Flint River). "We get great competition without ever having to leave the city," he says. "Our guys grow up playing with kids from Pioneer, Huron, and Skyline, and we have a great bunch of summer programs in town." Indeed one of Greenhills' two losses was to Huron. They also lost a scrimmage to Pioneer.
But they also went on to win three tournaments and came in second to Okemos at the tournament that Greenhills hosted, second to Midland at the Sturgis "Great 8," and 4th at University Liggett's tournament behind Pioneer, Grosse Pte. South, and Birmingham Seaholm. But, of course, these are powers from other divisions. "We haven't lost very many duals in Division Four over the last ten years," says Eric. Even so, Mark Sobieralski's University Liggett squad now provides plenty of excitement these days. A key win at this year's state tournament occurred when Greenhills' 15 (seeded 5th) beat Liggett's 15 (seeded 4th) in what was the last match of the first day. "My team got a huge lift and carried it to victory the next day," he says.
"Our two teams battle hard with great sportsmanship and after the match the kids are all talking to each other whether they won or lost," says Mark whose squad finished second. "His kids not only win a lot but win the 'right' way."
This year's contingent was a squad that lost six guys from the previous year's team (two of whom transferred to Pioneer). "I needed guys from the JV to step up," Eric says. "This included two seniors and two juniors. All won individual state titles." Happily, Eric's son contributed with a state championship at 2D, holding off a very tough opponent from Liggett in three sets. "It was a special moment hugging him after the match," he says.
To be sure, victories abound: 192 of them against 72 losses (against stiff competition) in Eric's 21 years of coaching boys at Greenhills. Since 2000, his kids have finished second four times and third twice. To recap: from 2000 to 2015, two third places, four runners-up finishes, and 11 state championships (two boys seasons in 2007). They have won 19 of 21 regional titles (two losses to John Shade's Grosse Ile squad). Over the years, Eric has coached an individual state champion at every flight.
Growing up in Ann Arbor, he played at Ann Arbor Pioneer but not for Tom Pullen. He competed on teams that finished in the Top Ten all four years, sometimes Top Five. He and his partner went to the state finals of 1D both his junior and senior years. He was captain of the team his senior year. At Greenhills, his day job has gone from math teacher to P.E. teacher to Director of Athletics (10 years) to Associate Director of Admission (the past 11 years).
As varsity tennis coach, he views the job as a shared position ("I view us more as co-coaches") with Mark Randolph, himself a Coach of the Year for girls in 2009. A bit earlier (2005) Eric was recognized as state coach of the year. He serves on the state seed committee and is currently our 2nd Vice President.
By all accounts, he will be a good president. Eric brings a wealth of experience together with a wry wit that is disarming, given the amount of success his teams have enjoyed. There is no arrogance, only good will, a sense of gratitude, and much credibility. "For all that Eric is (great coach, master motivator, and match tactician), he is an even better friend," says Ron Landfair, our current president. "His commitment and love of the game show at every level."
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