A Tennis EmpireOctober 5, 2013
Story by Brendan Perkins
Photos by Rachel Mummey
On Sept. 20, a rainy Friday afternoon that relegated practically the rest of the high school tennis world into a forced day off, about 10 boys from Jasper High School’s team amble off the court at the Ed Yarbrough Indoor Tennis Center. The summer heat has relented and they’re playing inside, but thanks to the overcast of mugginess, coach and players alike are sweating to the point it looks like they just jumped full-clothed into a pool.
They leave, finally done for the weekend. Sarah Monesmith takes over. As the high school practice disperses, the eighth-grader begins her individual lesson. She plops down her tennis bag, and instructor Ryan Miller doesn’t say a word, but Monesmith knows what to do. High-knees across the court. Then lunges. Then side-to-side karaoke steps. Warm-up complete, the crisp pop pop racket banter between teacher and pupil is the only sound echoing through the building for the next 45 minutes.
That sort of cycle typifies the way the Jasper tennis program ticks.
Talented players serve their time and graduate. The next prodigies fill right in. Not all kids in the program specialize in the sport or pledge their lives to tennis, but some have been swinging a racket since age 4. And without exception, the understood expectation is that everyone works their tail off to thicken the legacy of a program that all began with one man more than 40 years ago.
As Jasper boys and girls tennis coach Scott Yarbrough stood on the deck overlooking a spread of 12 courts on a morning in July while dozens of junior tennis players completed their last day of camp, it was practically as if it were an emperor presiding over a kingdom. Tennis may be considered a minor sport or fringe activity in the realm of high school athletics. At Jasper, though, it’s become an empire.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how it works sometimes. I really don’t,” says Yarbrough, the 1988 state singles runner-up at JHS who played collegiately at Murray State. “All I know is when one thing ends, there’s something else beginning.”
Boys tennis season begins, then ends. Then there’s the months of winter tennis, which have been simplified by Jasper’s two-court indoor facility that opened two years ago. Then girls season reaches full roar. Then, it’s on to two months of summer tennis camp. And back to the boys season again.
Practice, win, repeat.
Hardly anyone has the routine licked quite like Jasper. Between the boys and girls programs, Wildcat tennis has stashed away 59 sectional championships. (Yarbrough admits a few of the sectional trophies have gone MIA over the years.) Only Munster (77), Columbus North (62), Indianapolis North Central (60) and Homestead (60) lay claim to more. Over the next week, the Wildcat boys are favored to ink their ninth trip to the state finals; they’re closing in on the girls program, which has made that winding journey to the finals 11 times. Each program boasts a state title of a different brand; the boys surprised Homestead and Center Grove to capture the 1999 team state title, just months after Erin Giesler and Dana Schitter grabbed the individual doubles state crown.
That prompts the question: How?
As Forest Park coach Dean Blessinger puts it, Jasper is among the 10 or 12 powerhouse programs in the state. “There’s another 10 or 12 a notch down, and then there’s the rest of us,” he said.
How — how — can a small-town program find itself in the same caste with the Carmels and Center Groves and Park Tudors of the world?
Well, that’s complicated. It’s a layered answer that includes innovation, wealth and unflinching personal responsibility — by both players and coaches.
To Yarbrough, the link to success is connected in the summer.
“This is my normal,” he says on the morning of July 18, sitting at his desk inside the tennis fieldhouse. It’s 6:30 a.m., and Yarbrough wastes no time getting started as he winds grip tape around the handle of a racket. When he’s done, he squeezes the grip with both hands to inspect. It’s perfect.
Scott remains the centrifugal force behind the program, and the bombastic 42-year-old dabbles in everything. In one five-minute swoop around the tennis complex as he coached in the girls regional in May, he shook hands with a fan, delivered a sermon to doubles players at the fence and went to check on the concession stand. (Yes, there’s a full concession stand at every home match. And the national anthem is played.)
Lately, Scott is only appending to what his dad started.
Ed Yarbrough, a football and basketball coach who adopted the tennis program in 1971 when the team needed a coach, launched Jasper’s first summer tennis camp about 34 years ago. The first iteration was nothing more than 30 high school kids showing up a few mornings per week. Then it became 50 kids, including middle-schoolers. Then advanced and intermediate groups. And 3- and 4-year-olds. And adults.
“Dad was a guy that always wanted more,” Scott says.
Ed didn’t know a thing about tennis. So he learned. He took Scott to indoor lessons at French Lick, sat next to the court with a notebook and scribbled notes to regurgitate to his own team. He read books. He visited the Bollettieri Academy in Florida, which has developed players including Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova.
The compendium of knowledge profited his players and the summer camp, which has ballooned to include 300 kids annually. The Yarbrough family has been told it’s among the largest tennis camps in the Midwest.
Used to be, there was one line for summer camp sign-ups. Now, there are 27. Things are broken down to accommodate preferences — morning or evening, age groups, June or July session. Linda Eby remembers waiting in lines consisting of nearly 100 people, stretching from the JHS auxiliary gym out to the parking lot. To have their kids slotted in the time and level they want, some parents even wait in lawn chairs starting a 2 p.m. for the evening sign-ups.
“That’s summer for my kids,” said Eby, whose children Daniel and Celeste have both attended camp, completing the morning session before biking back home for lunch then heading back in the afternoon. “They love it.”
Before long, they’re family.
That’s the buzzword around Jasper’s tennis courts. Family. The tennis family. Fitting, because many within the Wildcat program ascribe success to the fact that families nourish the program with a constant trickle of talent.
About 20 years ago, there were five Freybergers. More than a dozen Seger kids have played. The first kids start, and the younger ones follow suit — and many times become better than older brother or sister.
Chelsea and Whitney Kuntz were never regular varsity players, but younger sister Brie grew up hitting with them and played on the 2012 state finalist team. John Seng guessed that his oldest son, Heath, started playing in seventh grade and second son Jeff began late in elementary school. The twins, Ben and Eli Seng, grew up hitting tennis balls in the driveway, in neighbors’ yards. While Heath and Jeff landed on the varsity squad later in their careers, Ben and Eli, who both picked up rackets around age 4, are now seniors and veterans of two state finals appearances.
The emblematic family is just as crucial.
It’s why the Wildcat boys team has made a habit of gathering on its own at Azura CafÃ© for breakfast at the same time — 7:15 — on the morning of every Saturday match. It’s why Eli Seng, the No. 1 singles player on this year’s team, said one of the things he’ll miss the most are overnight road trips to summer tournaments, when the boys and girls get the chance to socialize and compete at an overlapping event. And it’s why none of the varsity player ever — ever — leaves before every JV match is completed. Against Vincennes Lincoln this season, Eli Seng trumpeted, “Get up, Sizemore!” to Brandon Sizemore as he completed his No. 2 JV doubles match.
Seng and his varsity cohorts were required to be there, but as they talked and joked on the bleachers, it hardly resembled indentured service.
“In middle school, I remember the girls, and I remember the girls and being good and having fun and being a team,” says Ali Schitter, a 2012 graduate who’s returned the last two summers to serve as a camp instructor. “I just wanted to be a part of that, because I always knew the Jasper tennis program was a good thing to be a part of. I wanted to experience that whenever I was older.”
The cycle repeats, and the family gains more descendants.
“The personal involvement with the boys from Ed and Scott, they’ve really been able to motivate the kids to strive to get better,” John Seng says. “Even less talented players or athletically gifted players get a chance to play and become part of the tennis family. Once they’re involved, they’re hooked, and they want to improve themselves and improve the team, and that all improves the program. It’s just kind of an attitude that’s been instilled in them from junior tennis on.”
They usually win, but not always.
After Evansville Memorial jabbed the Wildcats with a 4-1 loss last month, Yarbrough addressed the team in the fieldhouse. That’s the routine after practically each match, win or lose. Some high school tennis coaches are little more than supervisors. The brutally honest and perpetually motivating Yarbrough isn’t.
“You have made a commitment to this team, and some of you are not holding up that commitment,” Yarbrough tells his boys, retrieving a sign that hangs near his desk. “It says it right here:
Commitment: You’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as life in between. Well guess where we’re at right now? We’re in between.”
With the whole group listening, Scott goes position by position on the varsity team, identifying their defects that night. One of them didn’t follow a gameplan. One of them moped. One of them didn’t exude full effort, which rankles Yarbrough more than anything.
Within the scolding, though, there’s always a message.
“It’s a matter of life and how you handle yourself,” Yarbrough says near the end of his 15-minute talk.
“Guys, one of these days you’re going to apply for a job and not get it, so are you going to pout and go to the bar and have a few drinks and get drunk and then just feel sorry for yourself? No. You’re going to apply for another job and get your foot in the door and you’re going to go forward.”
Yarbrough sometimes is the bad cop, though his relationship with players is also defined by mutual joking and razzing.
The team shut down the indoor Sept. 20 practice with a friendly “king of the court” drill, and the coach played right along. When Eli Seng concussed an overhead smash that whizzed through Yarbrough’s legs, he playfully bellowed, “Sit down!” toward his coach. A few minutes later, Yarbrough repaid the favor, blistering a shot by Seng to assume his spot as court king.
“Sit down! Sit down, Eli, you’re done!” Yarbrough shouted, with Seng sheepishly grinning.
The fusion of silly and stern was similar to how Ed operated. The state’s all-time wins leader with 881 victories, Ed died in June 2010 of preleukemia at age 64, just months after his girls team won its 21st straight sectional title.
The family juggled grief with questions. Scott had been running the tennis side of the camp for years.
Scott, who took over coaching the boys team from Ed in 2003, did the same thing with the girls program — in addition to the heap of other summer camp details that Ed managed, such as writing checks and finding sponsors.
“It was never ”˜Where does the program go from here?’” says Keri (Yarbrough) Ballard, Ed’s daughter, who assists Scott on the financial end of the camp. “It was more of a ”˜How do we keep it at the same level as we have it now? How do we fill those huge footsteps?’”
Nothing changed, because the steep expectations Ed implemented over the years remain entrenched.
When players reach junior high and high school, they’re encouraged to play in a minimum of four U.S. Tennis Association tournaments per summer. For the girls program, preseason practices coincide with spring break but players typically stay in Jasper to practice. The demands aren’t scrawled in stone. But bypass the tournaments or gallivant around Panama City for a week, and well, somebody may pass you by.
“There are some coaches around southern Indiana that think (Jasper’s success is) a right and it’s not earned. Those guys earn what they get. They work their (butts) off,” Blessinger said. “(Scott) does have a few more bodies to work with, but that’s not a given. You still have to work at it.
“I’ve had people ask me, ”˜Are you envious of Jasper’s program?’ Hell, no. I’m not envious of it. I love it. It shows me where we could be if we get that kind of commitment. It can be done.”
A chief obstacle for most prep programs is the capital.
“You have to have the facilities to do it,” Ballard says. “I think that’s the biggest difficulty is the facilities.”
Eleven years ago, Jasper upgraded from nine courts to 12, allowing for more room to roam — before, summer campers and instructors had to be shipped out to other courts throughout Jasper, and Ed would drive around town to monitor. When Greater Jasper schools renovated the high school sports complex, input was sought from coaches asking what they’d like in their new facilities. Ed laid out grand plans that were received. He envisioned semistate Saturday, and being able to stand in one spot and being able to see all 10 matches simultaneously. The stately complex, with a row of eight courts and a pair of courts split off on each end in a modified U-shape, is now named in Ed’s honor and “in my opinion, the best high school setup that you could have it in the state of Indiana,” Scott says.
Scott wants to resurface the courts, but they get too much use to be shut down for an extended time. The dedication to offseason work took the next step with the recent opening of the nearby indoor tennis center. Between the two courts in the $400,000 facility that was funded solely by donations, it gets 80 hours of use per week in the winter.
“I think all programs could be as good as Jasper if they did the same things,” Brie Kuntz says. “Our coaches are really good about bringing in new drills and new things every year. They’re constantly trying different things.”
For the miniature tennis campers, there’s now QuickStart tennis, which uses a smaller court size and balls with minimized compression and a lower bounce to more effectively ease youngsters into the game. And the innovation of the last decade has been the addition of a full-time teaching pro. The 24-year-old Miller, who took over the position last year, works as an independent contractor, with all money he earns coming from private lessons as well as from coaching the junior high teams and assisting with camps.
A graduate of Washington High School, Miller said he was struck by how engaged and alert his pupils are. Even from a young age.
“There’s an understanding that ... ”˜OK, if I want to really commit myself to this, this is what you need to do: You need to get into lessons, you need to get into group instructions, some clinics, and commit yourself to playing all year-round,’” says Miller, whose motivation to improve in high school came from wanting to beat Jasper — which he accomplished as a junior. “I think that expectation comes from the environment that’s been created by the Yarbrough family: We expect success and this is how we’ve shown to get it.”
Yarbrough fights the perceptions that his program naturally comes loaded with automatic talent, and that his players do nothing but play tennis. And while the connection to affluence and success exists — “I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t,” Scott says — money isn’t a must. Camp sponsors help defray the cost of rackets for kids. Yarbrough has had parents approach him and say they can’t afford camp, and he’s sometimes sliced their cost or even lowered it to free.
Tennis prosperity may not make Jasper universally beloved; after the Wildcats won the boys semistate last year, Yarbrough overheard a Floyd Central parent bristle, “I’m so glad we don’t have to come back here again.”
He just smiled.
“That’s the ultimate compliment for me,” he says. “She doesn’t want to come back because she doesn’t want to have to lose at Jasper. Things like that are more compliments than hurtful, because that means we’re doing something right.”
Running an empire almost precludes rest. Yarbrough essentially has one week of vacation every year, and that comes during the IHSAA-imposed moratorium in the summer. He has begun taking one day off from tennis per week in the summer, per insistence from his mother, Judy. Scott admits he worries about burnout and sacrificing his intensity, and he’s open to the idea of someone else taking over either the boys or girls program a few years down the road.
But it’s got to be the right person, and Yarbrough is content running the empire as long as he has to.
“I’m not going to have it fall apart, at least while I’m here,” he promises.
The Sept. 20 practice was over, Yarbrough was bathed in sweat, his weekend had unofficially begun, and it was the 16th birthday of Emma, one of his four daughters. But junior Grant Weaver wanted to work out a kink in his forehand. So Yarbrough stayed another 15 minutes, feeding him ball after ball.
“Step! Better!” Yarbrough roars, wanting Weaver to get more weight in his shot.
“Step! Right foot, step!”
“Step, good! Step, good!”
Striding further into the elite circle of tennis, one step and one forehand at a time.
Contact Brendan Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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