20 years later, state titles remain unmatchedOctober 16, 2019
By GREG ECKERLE
Special to The Herald
Dana (Schitter) Schnarr had the booming tennis serve, Erin (Giesler) Palmer could chase down about any shot, Luke Recker emerged as a best-ever candidate, undefeated Ross Schitter gave an unlikely pep talk, Jeb Brown fought off lingering neck pain, doubles partners Phil Schwenk and Neil Giesler won a pivotal point, and Jeff Braun wore some unlikely shoes and teamed with Mark Seger to beat a two-year undefeated Fort Wayne Homestead doubles team. And in their corner was mastermind Ed Yarbrough, the late Hall of Fame coach and founder of the Jasper Wildcats’ enduring tennis powerhouse.
Those are just a few of the storylines from this year’s 20th anniversary of two of the most unique athletic achievements in Jasper High School history — the girls’ tennis doubles state title won by Schitter and Giesler in June, 1999, followed by the boys’ team winning an unprecedented tennis state championship in October, 1999.
The rarity of the boys’ team title is evident by two stunning statistics. Since New Albany won the first tennis state championship in 1968, only one team south of the Indianapolis area has won in the ensuing 51 years – Jasper in 1999. And in the 19 years since Jasper’s victory, only Indianapolis-area teams have won.
Jeff Smith, a 40-year professional tennis instructor who now teaches at Indianapolis North Central and ran a program at Center Grove in 1999 when Jasper beat that team for the state championship, said, “Ed Yarbrough made the tennis in Jasper like the tennis in Indianapolis. He had the kids practicing really hard and playing a tremendous amount of tournaments around the state. He turned a town like Jasper into a tennis hotbed. Still, I felt Center Grove would win that match, but credit the Jasper kids, they performed really well.”
The Wildcats, who lost a tough semi-state match to the Floyd Central Highlanders the previous season, thought they had a shot at the state in 1999, particularly after beating Floyd Central in the North Central Invitational early in the year. But doubts resurfaced after their only loss, a 3-2 heartbreaker at their nemesis, Floyd Central, in the final match of the regular season.
But No. 3 singles player Jeb Brown, a senior, remembers a key moment right after that defeat. “Talk about disappointment, because there went our perfect season, and there came the doubts,” said Brown. “Then, Ross Schitter, of all people, pulled everybody together and gave us a speech. He said this is when it gets serious, we’re going to start the tournament, we’re going to focus, we’re going to come together and we’re going to do this. Coming from him, I think that really inspired us. We could see the seriousness he had.” Schitter, a junior, also had the talent, finishing the year at 28-0.
Jasper cruised through the sectional and regional before colliding once more with Floyd Central in the semi-state’s first match. “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as bad as to beat the pants off (my Floyd Central opponent),” said Brown, who did, 6-1, 6-3, after splitting matches with him previously. Fueling Brown’s fire was him overhearing a close acquaintance say before the match that Brown and Jasper wouldn’t win. “My personality is, if you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it,” he said. “I was more in the zone and mentally ready for that match than any other. I don’t remember playing a better high school match.”
The winning point against Floyd Central came, fittingly, from senior No. 1 singles player Luke Recker. “I was probably more excited about that match than about any match I can remember,” said Recker. Current Jasper coach Scott Yarbrough, who was singles state runner-up for the Cats in 1988, said Recker would be in the discussion for Jasper’s best-ever player.
The Wildcats then blasted Vincennes, 5-0, to earn a spot in the state finals. Fifth-ranked Jasper, by far the smallest school left, was an underdog in their final two matches, against second-ranked Homestead and fourth-ranked Center Grove.
The Wildcats beat Homestead, 3-2, with points coming from Schitter and both doubles teams. Schitter’s wins were becoming expected, but the doubles’ wins here were a mild surprise, even though Jeff Braun and Mark Seger at No. 2 doubles had lost only once, to Floyd Central. But as good as juniors Braun and Seger were, they were facing a highly-confident Homestead No. 2 doubles team that was undefeated for the second year in a row. So the Wildcat win became an instant classic, and was further embellished by the Homestead fans’ reaction to the deceiving appearance and mannerisms of Braun and Seger.
Braun wore some distinctive shoes — they were black, while all other players wore white, and they were quite dilapidated, with visible holes. They were more like trail shoes than tennis shoes. When Jasper’s duo walked on the court, Braun’s father, Mike, recalled a Homestead fan saying, “Well, it won’t take long to mop up these two.” But Jasper won, 6-4, 7-5.
“I definitely broke tennis etiquette by wearing black shoes,” said Braun. “Those were just the shoes I owned, so that’s what I played in. No special tennis shoes, and we were not of the more typical tennis crowd. My tennis bag for a year or two was one I made in home economics class. When we were leading, I remember Homestead fans saying, c’mon, you can beat these guys, they’re not that good. Arguably, from a technique standpoint, we probably scared Coach Yarbrough, not having the typical tennis stroke, but we were very competitive. Between our non-tennis attire and our unusual style of play, we threw off the normal teams.” Both Braun and Seger had speed and hustle, Seger providing plenty of power, and Braun had the finesse.
“Jeff was super quick and very agile,” said Seger. “I’d sit back on the baseline. We were very complementary, we’re cousins and very good friends.” He added, laughing, that he didn’t know how Braun’s shoes made it through the season, that they were falling apart.
Jasper’s No. 1 doubles team of senior Phil Schwenk and sophomore Neil Giesler beat their Homestead counterparts, 6-1, 7-6 (7-2). Brown termed that win, the first one off the court and somewhat unexpected, “probably the pivotal point of our entire tournament run.”
Schwenk remembers, “Neil was six-five and I was six-three, so we tried to control the net the whole match. Our strengths were serve-and-volley. You get a guy that tall coming to the net, it’s hard to get over him.” Assistant coach Linda Mehringer recalled that Schwenk “had such a wicked serve, a slice kick serve that could take people off the court.” Giesler credited Schwenk for his “leadership, and (providing the) calming effect of playing with an older guy.”
The 3-2 state championship win against Center Grove began with a struggle.
At No. 2 doubles, Braun had to battle a sudden sickness. “He was cramping bad,” said Seger. “He was wincing in pain. It was nerve-wracking, I could tell he felt horrible, but he didn’t complain.” Braun finally called a timeout, ran to a bathroom, and threw up. “I don’t know if I ate something bad, but I definitely was not feeling well,” said Braun. After the bathroom trip, the duo won rather easily, 6-4, 6-0.
At No. 3 singles, Brown was also in a tussle, down 5-4 in the first set. His father, Terry, recalls the shenanigans of some Center Grove students. “They were standing right behind Jeb and harassing him. They were hollering at him during a serve, and when he’d go to return the ball, they’d shout, miss it. So my brother and I, with our Jasper stuff on, walked down and stood next to the students.” They applauded Jeb after a nice shot and even complimented his opponent after a good effort. The students soon settled down. Brown won the match, 7-5, 6-1. Tony Epkey, Center Grove’s No. 1 singles player, said, “Brown’s win was the match that stood out to me. He played really well. We were really hoping to get a win at that spot, we felt it was winnable. That was a huge win for them.”
Meanwhile, Epkey broke out to a big early lead over Recker. Brown, playing on the next court, remembers Epkey “hooting and hollering and lifting his teammates up.” He noted how much a nearby match could affect one’s own play. Coach Yarbrough knew it, too. “Coach laid into Luke,” said Brown. “He yelled that your teammates are looking at you, your play is impacting them, and you’ve got to pull it together. And Luke fought back, it was one of the key things he did. He almost pulled out the first set, but it quieted (Epkey) down enough to where Ross (Schitter) and I could close out our first sets, and from there it was match over. That was a big mental element overlooked about that state final.”
Schitter, who won 7-5, 6-1, captured the title-winning point. Ironically, it came on a two-handed backhand shot down the line, although his strengths were a big serve and volley, and a strong forehand. “My backhand was pretty bad,” said Schitter, “and I wasn’t at the baseline very much, so to win on a shot like that was very uncharacteristic.”
Schitter remembered that Recker was the first person to give him a congratulatory bear hug. It was a memorable move by Recker, who was still playing Epkey in his next-court match, but keeping an eye on Schitter’s progress, knowing Ross was about to clinch the state championship. Recker’s sprint over to Schitter cost him a point penalty for leaving his match. “I didn’t really care that much (about the penalty), I was way more excited about winning the state championship than my match,” said Recker with a laugh. Epkey said he would have done the same thing. The Center Grove standout also paid high tribute to the Jasper program. “Ed Yarbrough was a perfect leader to develop the culture needed. For Jasper to do what they did, compared to the Indianapolis area with the resources they have, was unheard of. It’s really impressive what they were able to do.”
Just as impressive four months earlier was senior duo Erin Giesler and Dana Schitter winning Jasper’s first girls’ state championship, beating Merrillville in the semifinal, 6-2, 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, and then Terre Haute South in the doubles final, 6-7 (6-8), 6-4, 6-3.
The Jasper team had a scare during the semifinal’s second set, when Giesler hyperventilated. “I had been diagnosed with athletic asthma, and it was really hot that weekend, and we were exerting ourselves,” said Giesler, who couldn’t get her breathing under control. “Coach Yarbrough finally just screamed at me to try to get me to focus on him, and got my attention, and got me calmed down.”
The oppressive heat played a role in the state final, too, where Jasper’s conditioning program and Yarbrough’s strategy to stay out of the air conditioning that day to become better acclimated to the heat paid off. While Giesler and Schitter stayed outside between matches, eating in the shade, their opponents lounged inside. During the final match, an opponent cramped up and could barely move. Assistant coach Linda Mehringer recalled, “Ed always said nobody is going to be in better physical condition than we are. So our kids didn’t tire out much. Other teams would, especially in long matches in the heat. So in the final we told our girls to make them run more, to lob them more.”
But the Wildcat duo ran into temporary trouble double faulting, particularly against the cramped opponent who was moving slowly. Giesler’s dad, Stan, said, laughing, “I even yelled one time, ‘serve it underhand if you have to.’ They eventually took care of it, even though we parents got a little bit excited.”
Both players had strong hands at the net, which perfectly fit their serve-and-volley game. Schitter said they used an I formation frequently to put pressure on their opponents.
Erin vividly recalled the final game. “Dana was serving to win the championship, and I said to her, this is a perfect set-up for us, you’re serving and I’m up at the net. That was how we wanted it, because Dana was a great server.” And Schitter drilled an ace to deliver the state championship.
Another highly unusual aspect of Jasper’s two tennis state titles were the two brother-sister combinations that took part — Dana and Ross Schitter, and Erin and Neil Giesler. And in the Schitters’ case, each of them hit the winning shot.
Five of the seven boys tennis starters — Schwenk, Giesler, Seger, Braun, and Schitter — achieved a rare follow-up act by playing on Jasper’s baseball state champion team the next summer, in 2000.
Local freelance writer Greg Eckerle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Herald photos from the 1999 state championship year are below.
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