After traveling to other venues to play, thriving South Knox tennis teams now have courts of their own
By Bill Richardson
At a time when interest and participation in tennis are waning in this area, the Sport of Kings finds itself suddenly thriving in the southern portion of Knox County.
Thanks in large part to a grassroots effort, spearheaded by Monroe City resident Rebecca Cunningham, South Knox High School will host tennis competition for the first time starting this fall.
The first three of five new courts were ready for play on school grounds about a year ago. Then, at its November meeting, the South Knox School Board approved two more lighted courts, along with restrooms and a storage facility. By the time school starts in the fall, the Spartans should be ready to host competition for the first time ever.
Ready to host competition in the fall
“It’ll be so nice when it gets done,” said Ryan Hayden, a 1996 graduate of Vincennes Lincoln, who now teaches junior high school math at South Knox and is entering his second year as South Knox’s head boys coach. “They’re doing a great job with it.”
Tennis is really nothing new at South Knox. A middle school club program for girls has been in existence since 2006, and the school has hosted a successful varsity girls program since 2008. However, a middle school tennis club for boys wasn’t established until 2015, and this fall the Spartans will play boys varsity tennis for just the third time.
Cunningham, a native of Switz City who moved to Knox County with her husband, Brian, and children, Caleb and Abigail, in 2011, says the push for constructing new courts really picked up in 2016. That’s when the courts at Vincennes University were unexpectedly razed, forcing teams from both South Knox and Vincennes Rivet — both of which utilized the eight courts at VU — to find other accommodations.
While Rivet moved its operations to the courts in the city park in Lawrenceville, Illinois, South Knox was forced to travel to Washington, as arrangements were made to practice on courts at the Gwaltney Sports Complex.
Leading a group effort
From coaches, to parents, to people who were just genuinely concerned, Cunningham can literally name dozens of people who were instrumental in getting the five new courts constructed.
“But she’s the one who got this done,” said Hayden. “If not for her, we wouldn’t be talking about having new courts, or even having a boys team here.”
For her efforts, last November Cunningham was the recipient of the Brad Holmes Award, presented by the Midwest-Central Indiana Chapter of the United States Tennis Association to someone who promotes the sport.
“I told them, ‘I guarantee you I’m the worst player to ever win this award,’” said Cunningham. “But I love the game and I’m real supportive. I’m hooked (on tennis) for sure.”
Aside from Hayden and Cunningham, Mark Gray and veteran varsity girls coach Jessica Flynn are currently among the central figures in South Knox tennis.
Gray, a long-time elementary teacher in the corporation, started a program for middle school girls about 15 years ago. That led to the formation of a girls varsity team, which quickly made its mark.
“The surprising thing was, the fourth year we had a team we won our first sectional,” he said. “We were competing against Vincennes Lincoln, Vincennes Rivet, Washington and Washington Catholic, all teams that were established. I found it amazing that we won a sectional that quickly, and then we won three in a row. The key things is, we’ve been blessed with some good coaches, and all of them had been good tennis players.”
Middle school tennis for boys came along in 2017, followed by a varsity program — headed up by Dalton Robbins — a year later.
A new job forced Robbins away, and it’s unfortunate he wasn’t able to taste any on-court success. Under his guidance, the Spartans didn’t win a match in 2018.
If not for (Rebecca Cunningham), we wouldn’t be talking about having new courts, or even having a boys team here.Ryan Hayden
“He did a really good job with them, though,” Hayden said. “He got those kids off to a good start. When I took over, I was pleasantly surprised as to what they knew and how well they were able to play.”
The Spartans won only four times under Hayden last fall, but showed improvement throughout the season.
A big concern to some, according to Hayden, was the effect a varsity tennis program would have on the school’s other fall sports, cross country and soccer.
“I think there was some resistance,” Hayden said. “But I asked my kids, all 12 of them, if any of them were planning on running cross country or playing soccer. They all said no.”
To boot, the other programs are thriving.
“They had successful seasons,” Hayden said. “The soccer team made it to the regional, and the cross country team had a great season, as usual.”
Student success also present in classroom
More importantly, the South Knox team has excelled in the classroom. The state tennis association says any team that has a grade-point average of 3.6 or higher is considered to have “Academic All-State” status. The Spartans easily earned that recognition with a team GPA of 3.9. As an individual, team member Nolan Hays was selected to the Academic All-State squad.
“That’s the best thing of all,” Hayden said. “More than seeing success on the court, that’s what we’re really after.”
Gray, who doubles as the school’s varsity golf coach, certainly puts things in perspective. He recalls holding middle school girls practices on two courts on the school grounds that were recently removed, and in the school gym, “hitting balls against the walls.”
“With our (middle school) girls, we just tell them to have fun and learn the game of tennis,” he said. “We have a lot of girls who are having a lot of fun. A few of them have been taking it to the next level, and we have a handful who are excelling, and are probably going to be good high school players.”
Hayden is taking an “onward and upward” approach.
“My hope is to have great kids, who enjoy and love tennis. We already have that,” he said. “We’re at a good place now. We just need more experience. We need to play more tennis. I promise you, we’ll keep improving.”
And, for the first time ever, they’ll be doing it on their home courts.