Tennis building a winning tradition

Published 8:58 am Thursday, April 12, 2018

As Shane Nixon drove away from the NCHSAA 4-A Individual Tennis Championships in 2017, it all began to sink in. Having just guided his team to arguably the greatest season in Davie boys tennis history, Nixon realized right then that he was entering a whole new world. It was easy to make the realization because the person Nixon had been coaching in those state championships was Davie legend Elijah Gregory.

Gregory, whose career saw him win more than 115 matches, saw his career come to an abrupt end in Raleigh. Gregory lost in the first round to the eventual state runner-up. For Nixon, this meant starting to imagine Davie tennis Post-Big E. The 100 or so miles gave Nixon plenty of time to think. How do you replace a legend? How do you plan for the future when needing to deal with the present?

Gregory wasn’t the only loss, though he was certainly the biggest.  “That team was legendary. A legendary player, of course, but also a legendary team,” Nixon said. Four of the top seven from the 2017 Central Piedmont Conference regular season and tournament champs would not be around to help defend the title. And that was if everyone came back. (Ultimately, a few didn’t, including at least one who would have seen significant playing time in the top six singles and the top three doubles.)

There were other changes, too.  With the move to the new high school, Davie tennis moved to new home courts.

Nixon began to think that this was an important time for Davie tennis. It was a defining time. He began to think that maybe he could use the momentum of such a historically good year to shift from thinking about each “team” to program as a whole. Taking Davie tennis to the next level might be a goal and this might be the time to set it as such. Could tennis become a consistent championship-level sport at Davie? Nixon decided this was the time to find out.

“I just figured this was as good a time as any to set a course for the long-term health of boys tennis at Davie” Nixon said. “We needed to be reminded that winning is a habit, just like losing. We had won now and needed to make it a habit, a long-term habit.”

The first step was getting some guys who had not previously done so to consider holding a racket and playing some tennis at times other than tennis season. A partnership with the tennis pros at Bermuda Run would be the avenue for that to happen.

“Making tennis lessons convenient and affordable would be the only way to get our guys, all of our guys, to play tennis at some point other than February to May,” he said. “We partnered with Bill Appelt and Bret Williams at BR to make that happen.”  Nixon says it has been a great partnership for both so far, at least as far as he’s concerned. “Many of our guys take lessons at BR anyway. One phone call and Bill and Bret were interested and willing to help.” The partnership designed a series of summer evenings where up to six guys could come, and for a very affordable price get some quality instruction.

The second step was meeting with those guys who already play some tennis all year. There are a couple seniors and one sophomore on this year’s team who fit into that category. But that was and is all. So, Nixon knew he had to go to the incoming freshmen class to fill out what he’d need to make winning a habit. That process started in his living room. Nixon’s son Jack, now part of the freshmen class, helped his dad know who to talk to and what to say.

“Jack was great,” he said. “He kind of said to me that I had to find a new way to talk to kids. Not change my coaching style, but change my communication style.”

Three guys, including his son, emerged as the freshmen class.  Throughout the fall, even into the winter, the two seniors, the sophomore and these three freshmen would sporadically get together and play. All of them were in a program called Competitive Edge at Bermuda Run as well. When they played otherwise, they’d happily include any of the rest of the team who showed up.

The final step was getting everyone on the court at the start of season and selling this group that they could be the start of something. Nixon begins every year in his own mind by setting some goals which he describes as “bold but attainable.” Goal No. 1 this year has been to prove that last year was not a fluke.

As the team and school went to spring break, it is fair to call that goal accomplished. At 8-3 overall and 5-1 in the CPC, this year’s team is far better than most anyone expected, maybe even including the coach.

“If you’d have given me a chance to be 8-3, with wins over Reynolds (twice), West Forsyth and Statesville Christian (twice), I’d have signed up without needing to play a match,” he said. “I just wasn’t sure we could be this good. I was hopeful, but not fully confident. The lack of depth, especially experienced depth, and the brutality that is the CPC just made me tentative.”

But the War Eagles are 8-3 and 5-1. They are rolling. They had a seven-match win streak recently.

“Nobody is saying we’re as good as last year’s team, especially not me,” he said. “But we are really good.”

A second goal was to qualify for the state dual-team tournament. In sole possession of second place, if the season ended today the War Eagles would make the state tournament for the second straight year.

How have they done it? Nixon says there is enough credit to go around. “My top two, sophomore Ben Fleming and senior Parker Froelich, have started to believe they are good enough to be the top two, and then play like it,” he said. “In particular their doubles play, together for the first time, has really improved. My seniors (Froelich along with Ben Marklin and Chase Johnston) have been as good as team captains as a coach could ask for. Ben and Chase have both played well above where they are skill-wise as well. And my freshmen, what can I say? They’ve got about two/fifths of our total number of match wins, and that is with one of the three (Luke Stillson) missing two full weeks with an ankle sprain. Cren has played against a couple of really hard opponents. He is learning how good he is, learning to play at this level. He is going to be a really good player. I am very careful what I say about Jack. Obviously he’s my son and I am so proud of him, but I would never want anyone to say he was getting any preferential treatment. He isn’t. He’s played every spot from 2-6 and all three doubles seeds. All he does is win. At 10-1 in singles, it is hard to imagine him playing any better.”

One other addition to the team this year is volunteer assistant coach Terri Eanes. Eanes is a Davie grad and played tennis for the War Eagles as well.

“Coach Eanes has made my life so much better,” he said. “Especially with my son playing on the team, she’s been a huge part of keeping me grounded.

“Those are the particulars of how we’ve done it. … But it really goes back to last year. Those guys from last year’s team need some credit, too. They taught me that we could win. Not just here and there, but all the time. The success of last year’s team helped me see that winning could be a habit for us.”

So is winning a habit for Davie yet? “We’re making it one,” Nixon said. He says this year’s team “better understands winning because they know about last year’s team. They are making their own way, but take some pride in being able to defend a title some of them didn’t even help earn. We are a program, and this team is part of that program.”

And they aren’t yet finished. Nixon says this team isn’t satisfied with where they are. “These young guys now think we are supposed to win, and I love that.”