MHSTeCA COACH OF THE YEAR - 2017
(click on coach's name to read more about them)
DIVISION - COACH
DIVISION - COACH
|1 - Mike Pearson, Utica Eisenhower||1 - AnnMarie Michol, Utica|
|2 - Terry Schwartzkopf, H.H. Dow|
|2 - Will Sophiea, Holly|
|3 - Dave Clutts, St. Clair|
|4 - Nicole Carpenter, Durand||4 - Matt Baleja, Paw Paw|
Mike Pearson, Utica Eisenhower - Division 1
Three words (one hyphenated) aptly describe how Mike Pearson develops tennis players: The old-fashioned way. Three more clarifying words: In the summer.
To be sure, there are some coaches who are able to take advantage of indoor facilities and tennis lessons from in-house teaching professionals. But all of them know that summers are the golden time when kids can play all day every day, when there are multiple opportunities for all-important competitive experience via tournaments, and when there are recreation programs that offer instruction. Young kids also get the chance to mix with the older ones and strive to emulate their skills. It is a time of dreams and goals and practice.
“Over the years of coaching tennis, I have been involved with promoting the growth of tennis in Richmond, Dakota, and Eisenhower,” says Mike. “I started a middle school program that successfully ran for five years before I left Richmond. I also taught the Richmond parks and recreation summer tennis lessons for eight years. I ran many open hitting days for Richmond during the summers to build the program.
“I ran the summer program for Dakota High School for two years (2013-2014) and worked their tennis camps while coaching the boys team,” he continues. “Currently, I am running the Utica Community Schools Community Education tennis camps. Over the past two years (2016-2017), we have had a middle school tennis team at Eisenhower and I have run two years of the adult clinic in the summer as well.”
“Mike took a Richmond program and quickly made them a competitive team for both their league and regional,” says St. Clair’s Dave Clutts, himself a twice-honored coach of the year. “In a short time, he made a name for his program all over the state. When he started coaching at Eisenhower a few years later, his energy has continued.”
Mike is also in a leadership position during the high school season. During the 2017 campaign, he put together 12 tournaments: eight for Eisenhower and four for the Macomb County JV Championships. He ran four varsity quads, set up four JV tournaments (two 8-team invites and two quads), and four tournaments for the Macomb Tennis Coaches Association fundraiser. Not surprisingly, he has been president of that organization for the past three years. “I did all of the paperwork and ordered all of the awards for the tournaments,” he says. “We use the money from the Macomb County Tourneys to run our banquet every summer to honor the best boys and girls tennis players.” This includes awarding two $1,000 scholarships, one per boy and girl.
“He has had a huge impact growing the sport of tennis not only at Eisenhower but throughout Macomb County,” says Dave. “If you are looking for a tournament or a match, Mike can connect you with coaches throughout the state across all divisions. He is known to put together five or more JV tournaments together on a single Saturday.”
All of this effort has certainly paid off. At Richmond, Mike built the program into league title winners and regional contenders. He left the Richmond boys team in 2012 to coach the team at Dakota in 2013 and then joined the Eisenhower program after former coach of the year Chris Layson (2010) stepped down.
To be sure, he stepped into a strong tennis tradition, one established by Hall of Famer Nancy Butson (Class of 2008) but he certainly has not let the school’s reputation down. This is a coach who has five conference titles to his credit, two regional trophies for his schools, and qualified his teams five times. His best finish at the state tournament was eighth. This past season, Mike’s Eagles finished third in the conference behind Grosse Pte South and Port Huron Northern, second in the regional behind Northern, and ended tied for 11th at the state finals.
He certainly doesn’t shirk from competition. “I probably called Tom Pullen 10-12 times and kept telling him that Ava (Thielman) and Kari Miller had to play for state finals seeding,” he says of two of the finest singles players in the state. I kept bugging him to come to Eisenhower because I went to Pioneer four years prior.” Sure enough, Kari won on her way to the state 1S championship and Ava, a senior, was named Miss Tennis by the MHSTeCA board.
The father of three small children, Mike teaches Biology and Chemistry at Eisenhower which makes him -- with the addition of tennis coaching -- a very busy man. Not so busy, hopefully, to find the time to accept a well-deserved Coach of the Year award.
Dree Lo, Petoskey - Division 2
The Petoskey tennis community has been truly blessed by the presence of some remarkable coaches. First there was Karen Langs (Hall of Fame Class of 2003) who was, among other noteworthy achievements, one of the early founders of the MHSTeCA. She helped establish the Northern Michigan Tennis Association and became a natural choice to lead the high school girls program, a position she held for 25 years. She was a linchpin of not only community tennis in Petoskey but high school tennis statewide
When Karen retired, she assured everyone that she was leaving the Petoskey program in good hands. That was a gross understatement: Margaret Ruemenapp (Hall of Fame Class of 2013) was a natural choice, loaded with a coaching and teaching resume that spanned 13 years in the area when she took over the position. She was the Junior Development Officer and the President of the NMTA who was given the Glenn Casey Award for Petoskey Parks and Recreation service.
The obvious choice to succeed Margaret was Dree Lo, who had spent time as an assistant under both John Boyer with the boys and Margaret with the girls. After she took over the girls program in 2012, the Northmen became a fixture at the state finals including back to back runs. Indeed, she took bits and pieces of the greats that came before her in her coaching while adding her own flair to the game.
No matter the level of competition, the outcome, or the event, one thing that always stood out to longtime friend and assistant coach Susie Pizzuti was the high opinion teams and opposing coaches had for both Dree’s group and her coaching. “They had an incredible respect for who she was,” she says. “No matter if we were fighting for regional titles or state titles, she kept her integrity above and beyond. That was never ever questioned because it was Dree Lo’s team.”
Dree spent 11 years under John Boyer in the boys’ program at Petoskey, growing into more of a friend than assistant. “The more we worked together, the more our friendship grew,” said Boyer. “I always appreciated her deep insight and valued her opinion when making difficult decisions.”
Whether it was running hills with the players at the Winter Sports Park, going through drills on the courts, or whatever else took place in practice, Dree was there, going through it all with the teams. “As a coach, she always created a ‘sense of urgency’ during practice and matches, which most programs lacked,” says John. “The kids always knew they had a job to do and every practice was going to be challenging. If the kids gave 100 percent, Dree gave 110 percent. She would never ask a player to do what she couldn’t.”
A gifted athlete, Dree could more than keep up with the youngsters. The daughter of MSU football star Dean Look, she was involved in swimming, softball, and basketball at Okemos High School where she was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame. She was an avid downhill and cross country skier who later picked up biking and golf. She took up tennis when her two children started playing the game. She was so strong, yet so endearing,” says Susie. “You could just feel coming through her soul that she cared.”
Dree was such an advocate in growing tennis for the community through the Petoskey parks and recreation program, where she taught beginning children to experienced players that, as with Margaret, she was presented Glenn H. Casey Award in 2015. “There was hardly a day that Dree wasn’t working to promote tennis and grow tennis for Petoskey High School and the Petoskey area,” says current boys coach Bill Perlmutter. “She fund-raised thousands to rebuild our courts. She ran the Petoskey City Championships.”
Given her athleticism, obvious good health, and enthusiasm, it stunned the community when Dree, age 57, feel ill and died shortly after of complications from pneumonia during this past spring season. “It was shocking – her passing – as she was ridiculously active and fit,” says Bill.
The outpouring of both grief and praise was immense. It took the coaches from Region 14 very little time to make her Regional Coach of the Year. It took even less time for the Board of Directors at their meeting in Haslett in June to name her State Coach of the Year.
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Will Sophiea, Holly - Division 2
At an MHSTeCA board meeting a couple of years ago, Will Sophiea read a personal letter addressed to the group in which he expressed his love for the game of tennis and in particular for high school tennis coaching. But at that time, he feared that he would have to quit. Having been a substitute for far too long, he was despairing of ever finding a full time job. Instead, he was teaching in several different districts: Clarkston, Flushing, Bloomfield, and Montrose. “It definitely made coaching at Holly a challenge,” he says.
But certainly not unsuccessful. In 2015, he was chosen Division 2 Coach of the Year for a variety of reasons but not the least because of the success of his boys. The Broncos had broken an area record with 93 consecutive Flint Metro League victories. Having inherited a program from Hall of Famer Bill McDaniel -- for whom Will won both league and regional championships as a player at 1S -- the Holly program might have to function without the all-important consistency of leadership, especially from within the school and from a former player.
But fortunately, Will was hired by the Holly district in the summer of 2016 to teach social studies – primarily Economics and Psychology with a smattering of technology courses – at the high school and yes, full time. “It has made life much more practical, enjoyable, and some ways realistic,” he says.
It has also enabled the extension of impressive success. The boys have continued their unbeaten league streak to 99. The last time they lost in the conference was in 1999.
But the girls teams eclipse even that. The squad has not lost a conference match since 1995. This past season they notched the program’s 116th consecutive victory. In addition, this year’s team swept the Flint Metro League Tournament and the regional tournament, the first time this has been accomplished in the same season. They went on to finish in the top ten at the state tournament for the third consecutive year, a school record. The Bronchos have been in the top 11 the past four seasons and the top six the past two years, another school record. In fact, this year they were in the top five.
In previous years, Holly had never had a singles player make it past the quarterfinals at the final tournament. This year, three (1S, 2S, and 3S) reached the semis. This from a team that lost six seniors the previous year.
“Holly has always had a strong program, but over the last few years, Will has turned his teams into a state power,” says St. Clair’s Dave Clutts. “He has also continued to make Holly the destination of great tournaments. Teams from all over the state travel to Holly to face the best competition.”
Why the success? Will points to the invaluable contributions of assistants Andy LaVigne and Erik Kahn. But Dave points to the establishment of a middle school program which not only helps the program but grows the sport in his community.
As a member of the board of directors, Will is the guy who puts together our digital newsletter, a vast improvement over past print editions. He also prints and mails all state certificates, a time-consuming and often frustrating task.
It is one thing to reach to new heights in a program but quite another to stay there. Will’s ability to take the reins and maintain excellence while bringing such good will (pun intended) to high school tennis throughout the state is not to be taken for granted. For the second time, the MHSTeCA board of directors has recognized this.
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Dave Clutts, St. Clair - Division 3
In its entire tennis history (60 years), St. Clair High School has had only two coaches. The first was Hall of Famer Ron Stablein who directed the team for over three decades. His girls and boys won over 400 dual matches, won or shared 24 St. Clair Area League titles, and captured 6 regional championships. His teams and individuals made 18 trips to the state finals. Some of them – including Dick Pauly and Don Wisswell – went on to coach the game at area high schools. In 1978, Ron led the drive for a new 7-court tennis complex at the school and established a girls team in 1982, a squad that rewarded his efforts by capturing seven consecutive league titles before he retired in 1996.
To be sure, the program has continued to thrive under Dave Clutts. Since 2001, his girls teams have enjoyed 15 top ten finishes and captured 12 regional titles. In 2001, they finished in third place at the state finals and tied for state runners-up the following year. The squad has qualified for the final tournament an impressive 26 years, 19 of them consecutively.
This past season, the Saints brought home their eighth consecutive regional trophy on their way to a co-6th place final tournament result.
“Our second place finish at the Haslett tournament was our turning point,” he says. “Our girls realized that they could compete with any team in the state. Particularly, our No. 1 doubles won their flight which inspired them to be a force at the state level.” All this achievement without having home courts to play or practice on this past spring.
Not to be outdone, Dave’s boys won their fifth consecutive regional this past fall, making the school’s trophy case even more crowded. They qualified for the state tournament for the 20th consecutive season and for a second year in a row had a doubles team reach the semi-finals. And Dave -- for the second time in 2017 -- was voted Regional Coach of the Year. This is also his second state Coach of the Year honor, the first being in 2009 for that boys season.
“I have known Dave since I started coaching 13 years ago at Richmond, says Utica Eisenhower’s Mike Pearson, himself this year’s Coach of the Year in Division 1. “We had many battles at regionals in Division 3 while I was there. Every match is very competitive every time we met. They are also very well behaved. He has won many sportsmanship awards from our league for his teams. I call him to ask questions or for advice regularly.”
In this very small world, Haslett’s Henry Brunnschweiler -- Coach of the Year – Boys, 2014 --- played for Dave when he (Dave) assisted Hall of Famer Jim Powers at Okemos High School. “He was extremely positive with his players,” says Henry. “There was a lot of encouragement, positive reinforcement, and guidance. He was only an MSU student at the time but he had a real sense of leadership that made his players believe in him. He spoke to you so that you felt valued. Many years after that, we bumped into each other while coaching and I was amazed at how consistent he has been as a coach.”
Why? Dave credits starting a middle school program eight years ago as a key ingredient. A flourishing summer program already helps. But make no mistake about it, Dave came to St. Clair with plenty of hands-on experience at the highest levels. As a youngster, he took lessons from Curtis Wright who played for MSU. He attended Nick Bolletteri’s camp in Wisconsin one summer. He played high school tennis for Hall of Famer Art Vince, going from 3D his freshman year to 1S his junior year. The Okemos team that he helped coach while in college won the state title in 1989.
In other words, taking over for a legendary coach has only served to further enhance the St. Clair program. Dave adds one more bragging right: another State Coach of the Year award.
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Nicole Carpenter - Durand - Division 4
Nicole Carpenter’s first day of coaching varsity tennis at her alma mater was on her 19th birthday. In fact, she transferred from Lake Superior State to nearby U of M Flint to finish her teaching degree so that she could take the job. The team had been through five coaches in six years.
In Nicole, the school got not only much needed stability but also an alumna who had played there. Coming from a large family, all of her siblings were competitive and successful in sports but a series of circumstances – a friend who was recruiting tennis players to save the girls tennis team and three influential adults who taught the fundamentals – got her into the game. Nine freshmen joined the team that year. “Our team learned a lot together and we were pretty good our senior year,” she says. “We scored seven points at regionals. Before 2016, that had been our best showing.”
The first couple of years were understandably difficult. Nicole’s focus was primarily on numbers. “I was averaging 30 girls when we played in the fall season,” she says. “We started winning a few matches each year. We held Open Court through the summer and I got a few girls taking some high school group lessons at Genesee Valley Tennis Center in Flint.”
Then decision time loomed. A lifelong softball player who coached the game in the spring, she had to choose between softball and tennis when the Gender Equity Lawsuit finalized. “I loved introducing kids to tennis,” she says. “Most of my players had never played before high school so I really got to see them grow and learn to love a game that they could play for the rest of their lives.”
Her modus operandi has been pretty much the same as when she was a high school player. She would take a group of freshmen who were quite unskilled and improve them over four years. One group won league championships three consecutive years (2008-2010). Seven or eight of them had begun as freshmen and got consistently better through the four years.
The same occurred this past spring, a very special campaign that was foreshadowed by the previous season. In 2016, the Railroaders had scored 11 points at the regional, had a flight runner-up at 4D, and most importantly, had 10 players back.
2017 didn’t disappoint. Having won the league championship easily, Nicole’s girls achieved the all-important 18-point goal at the regional by winning a 4D championship against Portland in a third set tie-break. “It was really an amazing feeling and felt like I was checking off my bucket list,” she says. “After many years of being home by noon on regional day, it was hard to imagine being there for the awards ceremony.”
Durand is a small, close knit school. Cousins would play for Nicole and then come back to watch the matches. Her grandparents, always encouraging her, can often be seen sitting at the contests with the rest of her family. Given that she and her husband, a football coach, have six kids ages 3-10, if they become high school tennis players ……..
But this is not a guarantee. “I think the most important thing I’ve accomplished year in and year out, despite our records (86-80-12), is that kids fall in love with tennis,” she says. “I try not to push too hard for the year-around competition because we are a small school and these kids play other sports. I know that’s part of what makes them so eager to get on the courts as soon as the snow melts.”
Nicole’s story is one that warms the hearts of many coaches: a person who labors for years until that one glorious opportunity when dreams are fulfilled.
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AnnMarie Michol, Utica - Division 1
By far, AnnMarie Michol’s greatest tennis influence has come from her brother, teaching pro Mark Sobieralski who is Grosse Pointe South’s girls coach, University Liggett’s boys coach, a Hall of Famer, and a National Coach of the Year. Mark was the one who put a racquet in her hand when she was five years old and because the young sister looked up to him (both literally and figuratively), she was hooked.
Annie went on to stardom at Warren Fitzgerald under coach Wayne Gilbert, playing 4S her freshman year and then 1S the next three. She lost only 10 matches in her four years of high school competition and was undefeated in the conference during that time span. She qualified for the state tournament all four years, and then continued playing after high school: 1S and 1D at Macomb Community College and Wayne State.
She must have been impressive. After all, Annie was hired as tennis coach at an all-boys school, and in the process became the only female coach at the school. Being an English teacher at DeLaSalle made the job of recruiting players a bit easier but it still took considerable effort to field a team in the early years. However, in 2003 over 50 players tried out for the program and tennis being a lifetime sport, she didn’t cut anyone.That year, the squad finished fourth in the league behind perennial powers U of D, Redford Catholic Central, and Brother Rice, were third in the regional (two points from qualifying), and recorded the 100th dual meet victory for their coach on the way to a 7-4-1 record. She was named State Coach of the Year.
But she didn’t stay there, at least not to coach. “When the tennis seasons changed, I retired from coaching tennis at De La Salle because my daughters were starting to get involved in sports -- and also my husband is a swim coach and we could not have two coaches coaching at the same time, she says. “A few years later Regina High School (in Warren) called and was in desperate need of a coach. I decided to help, thinking it would only be for a year and ended coaching there for three. But I could not build a program there because they did not have their own courts so I quit after three years. I thought I would never return to coaching.”
Guess again. After all, Annie had been inducted into the Macomb County Hall of Fame in 2013. Folks in the area would not let that much talent sit on the sidelines for long. “The Utica athletic director contacted me in 2016 and I took over the boys and girls coaching positions there...so coming up this year will be my 24th year as a head coach.” This stint includes two years as Mark’s assistant coach at South.
All that experience has stood her in good stead. Indeed, it didn’t take long for Annie to produce a winner at Utica. This past fall, her boys beat Eisenhower for the first time in school history and won the MAC White League and Division tournaments. They finished at 9-2 and won two tournaments. The Chieftains were named team of the year in Macomb County and were declared All Academic by the MHSTeCA.
And it will get better. “For the past 20 years I have coached some programs that did not have tennis courts on their property,” she says. “Now I will be able to start hosting my own tournaments and promoting tennis in the school and community. This past summer, I ran my first community tennis camp in order to try to build tennis awareness.”
Lucky kids. After all, their leader is a two-time State Coach of the Year.
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Terry Schwartzkopf, H.H. Dow - Division 2
“Every season on the eve of the state tournament, I hand my seniors personal and individually handcrafted letters of gratitude and encouragement,” says Terry Schwartzkopf. “This tradition has become a highlight of each season and a chance to explain to each player why they matter beyond the world of
tennis and the impact they leave behind. As I tell my boys, I am proud that they are victorious but I am continually amazed and beam with pride when I see how they handle themselves and how they are turning into young men.
He must be quite a writer. Over Terry’s 11-year tenure at Dow, the team has finished in the top five of the state the past 9 years including one fourth place, two 3rd places, and six (this is not a misprint) state championships. Three of these years were undefeated seasons.
Terry’s win-loss record is nothing short of astonishing, regardless of divisions. His teams are 65-10-9 (Win/Tie percentage of 88.1%) against D1 teams. Against D2 squads: 113-5-2 (Win/Tie percentage of 95.9%). Against D3: 10-3-2 (Win/Tie percentage of 80%).
But to be clear, Terry’s emphasis in writing the aforementioned letters is not on winning. “Yes, I would like to bring attention to the number of records held by Dow players within the last eleven years,” he says. “However, this program works to give back. We spent multiple years volunteering time and money in order to provide free clinics to underprivileged areas in the tri-cities. We have spent countless hours on beautification projects within Midland. The records, trophies, and competition are a wonderful part of the game of tennis but the real victories come in watching these young men turn into productive men willing to serve.”
Productive aptly describes the 11 years Terry has been varsity coach at Dow. In this time span, the Chargers have captured a conference championship each year, brought home nine regional trophies, and qualified for final tournament competition 10 times. The conference record is 54-1, the sole loss being against cross-town rival Midland, a defeat “that drives me to this day.”
Before coming to Dow as a mathematics teacher, Terry worked under Tom Marquis and Hall of Famer Bill Baum at Midland High School. He then took over the JV program at Dow for seven years under Mike Major. He came to these positions well prepared, having played for Hall of Famer Jack Davis and veteran coach Al Werbish at St. Johns. “I was MVP my senior year and was the first player from St. Johns to ever beat a player from East Lansing …. or so I was told,” he says.
Terry describes this past season as “one of over achievement. We lost a ton of talent and leadership this past season,” he says. “However, these boys were determined from day one to prove themselves. I think that was evidenced in our outcome. This is the first year since 2008 that we have not had an individual flight champion yet we pulled off second place.”
That’s impressive but not entirely surprising. After all, there was a time when the best tennis came from the Kalamazoo area, both because of the strength of University High School and Loy Norrix but also because the community was so identified with Stowe Stadium. Since the advent of the flight state championships, Midland has in many ways assumed the mantle. There is not only the tennis center but also the home of Hall of Famers Joe Haskins and Bill Baum. Terry and his assistant coach Garrett Turner (Girls Coach of the Year in 2009) are continuing the good work.
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Zed Mulder, Zeeland East - Division 3
Growing up in Holland, Jed Mulder played tennis, baseball, basketball, and golf but with baseball and tennis being spring sports in those days, baseball – his first love – won out. He was talented enough to play baseball and golf at Calvin College which became an additional foundation for him to coach a sport.
But why tennis? “I got involved with Zeeland when the school split into East and West high schools,” he says. “My daughter was an incoming freshman at East and as a parent, I went to every match. I love the game [and] moreover I wanted to return to coaching and try to make a difference with kids and our community.”
He did … and still does. Jed is Executive Director of The Bridge Youth Center where he oversees eight different programs that serve over 200 kids each week. He added boys varsity coach at Zeeland East to his daily schedule where he not only directed his kids on the court but often enough off it as well. “Our players are involved with teaching tennis to special needs students on a monthly basis through the winter months,” he says. “I also ask them to run tennis clinics both in the summer and winter months. I feel that it is important to give back and inspire young players. It is also a great learning platform for those players who are thinking of becoming a teacher/coach someday. I am consistently on the lookout for players who are simply great positive role models. They serve as homework mentors, basketball coaches, board game players, or simply someone older and ‘cooler’ for at risk middle schoolers to hang out with.”
They can also play good tennis for their coach and school. Zeeland East had qualified for the state tournament three consecutive years before losing nine players to graduation in 2016. But the 2017 squad stepped up to reassert themselves. The team won 10 matches while splitting with Spring Lake, Coopersville, Williamston, and Allegan. The Chix tied with Allegan for their first ever regional title and then went on to a seventh place tie at the final tournament.
“Our doubles held their own against early competition and progressed into very formidable competition by mid-year,” he says. “By the end of the year, they could compete with any team in D3. Competitive play breeds confidence. Confidence breeds a desire to be better and seek even more positive results. This year we took our lumps from some very good teams but were able to learn and get better as our confidence grew.”
This wasn’t the first time. Jed has coached the team for ten years. In that time span, he has guided his boys to one OK Green Conference and four OK Black Championships. They have made it to the D3 state finals three times and the D2 finals three times.
This is no small feat. “Zeeland East is in the unfortunate position of being right on the line between D3 and D2 for tennis,” says Jed. “If we find ourselves in D2, we travel to Portage to take on some of the healthiest competition in the state. If our numbers put us in D3, we must get past schools like Holland Christian, Allegan, and Hamilton.”
“His teams are scrappy and competitive,” says Allegan’s Gary Ellis. “He had nine players graduate off last year’s team but still qualified for state this year after tying us for the regional championship. Moreover, he does more than help kids become better players. He helps them become better people. He uses the sport as a teaching tool.”
“His doubles teams are always strong – a sign of good coaching,” says Portage Central’s Peter Militzer. “And depth never seems to be an issue for Zeeland East. I want to know Jed’s secret. In the Fall 2017, he had 4 new singles players so the thought going in was that their team would be substantially weaker. After all, not one of the four new singles players was one of the freshman sensations that coaches drool over. Yet his team had a great season and qualified for the State Tournament.”
“We play him only once a year, yet I am continually astounded at his knowledge of my players,” continues Peter. “When I see him at the Quad, he not only will ask about our top player or players, he’ll also ask if I have specific players back throughout our lineup. And then he will tell me about their attributes, such as that doubles player with the good kick serve, or that lower singles player who had a great backhand. And he usually knows them by name!”
There are some tennis coaches (thankfully not many) who are jerks but they know the game. This is not only a good guy who knows the game but who sees the bigger picture. What’s more, he practices it.
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Matt Baleja, Paw Paw - Division 4
When Matt Baleja was five or six years old, he used to spend an inordinate amount of time riding his Big Wheel around the tennis courts of Ithaca High School. Perhaps this was a foreshadowing in that by the time he entered the ninth grade, his interest in baseball had waned; therefore he went out for the tennis team. He played JV the first year and varsity the next three. Even though Ithaca is not necessarily a tennis school, he had good seasons at 1D and 1S his junior and senior years respectively.
Matt’s appetite for tennis didn’t diminish. He was the JV coach at Ashley High School one year and varsity coach the next before being hired to teach 8th grade Earth Science and American History at Paw Paw. At the same time, he was hired to coach the Three Rivers team, home of some outstanding players named Kiewiet and a Hall of Fame coach named Hal Stofer. He stayed there for a couple of years before the Paw Paw job opened up. Again, he started as a JV coach – this time under the son of Sturgis Hall of Famer Harley Pierce – before taking over the boys team.
Under his direction, the team has done well. This year, the squad finished ahead of Berrien Springs to capture the regional for the second time in three years. “We had a good start to the day, took the early lead, and held on to it throughout the tournament,” he explains. “Our doubles teams had a slower start than usual this year but we (including Warner Offord III, the assistant coach) were able to work with them a bit.”
Matt is particularly proud of his 1D who beat NorthPointe Christian, Grand Rapids Catholic Central, and Lansing Catholic at the NorthPointe Invitational. In other words, his kids can play. “I was very proud of our boys and the work they put in as the majority of the team begins playing tennis as 8th and 9th graders with our middle school and summer programs,” he says.
It wasn’t easy. Matt and his team lost the use of four of his courts this past season due to a lack of maintenance. That meant he had to cancel all of his home tournaments and his home dual meets had to be played at two locations. Moreover, he lost between 35-45 minutes per day of practice time as he and Warner had to rotate 30 varsity and JV players amidst two facilities.
It hurt even more that Matt wasn’t merely starting to build a fledgling program. That occurred back in 2010 when he took over with 9 boys. But since then, his kids have qualified for the state finals six times in the past seven years. In other words, he has been used to success without the handicaps. This is harder to do but he and his kids prevailed.
“We have always known that when we played Paw Paw, we had to be ready for a battle,” says Allegan’s Gary Ellis whose team competes in the same conference. “He is not afraid to take on some of the best teams around. Furthermore, he is the Boys Tennis Chair of the Wolverine Conference and does a good job coordinating and running meetings. When he hosts a tournament, you know that it will be well-run.”
And yes, the question has to be asked: Have you ever met Charlie Maxwell? Dubbed Old Paw Paw by then-Detroit Tigers announcer Van Patrick because of the name of his home town, Maxwell finished four times among the league leaders in home runs between 1956 and 1960. “I have met him multiple times,” says Matt. “He is the grandfather of a few of my former tennis players. His granddaughter still plays on the girls side (senior this year) and his grandson played a few years ago. He will generally be out at most home matches to watch them play.”
Moreover, Matt is well-liked. “The respect he shows to all is how all coaches should aspire to be,” says Brandywine’s David Sidenbender. He has always been a fair and compassionate competitor. He runs a quality program and does things the right way.”
Matt is a valued member of the MHSTeCA board of directors, one who is willing to pitch in, whether to take minutes in Gary Ellis’s absence or conduct Regional Coach of the Year balloting. “His proposals are well thought-out and he has the information to back them,” says Gary.
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