(By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
Memories will be strong for longtime Chewelah tennis coach…
This year’s trip to Yakima for the state tennis tournament will be the last one for longtime coach Denise Smith. After this spring, she will be retiring from the Chewelah School District after teaching countless students and coaching many players.
The late Peggy Meyer started the tennis program for the Cougars in 1997 and guided it from humble beginnings to solid footing in 2004. The went from not winning a set to winning league championships. Smith – who had played tennis and placed highly for Eastmont High School – became an assistant in 2000 and she coached the JV until Peggy stepped down from the job after her daughter Michelle graduated.
When Smith started, there were about 30 girls playing, there was no boys program and they practiced at the golf course.
“I was expected to drive a bus to the golf course courts for practice, like Peggy did,” Smith said. “I knew that if I got my CDL, my husband (Chris) would make me occasionally drive a logging truck or some big equipment. I really didn’t want to get my CDL and I wanted to eventually add a boys team”
Instead, Smith got on the Barbour Complex committee and asked if it was possible to build tennis courts at the high school. While there was double it could get done, Smith went to work writing a $100,000 and $50,000 grant. She was denied the first year but reapplied the next year and got them both. She got another $5,000 grant and also talked the school and the city of Chewelah into putting money towards the project as well. Ernie Smith even donated $70,000 of rock for the project.
After much work, five courts were built up to USTA standards and in 2007, the boys tennis program was officially started as well.
Competition had picked up under Meyer and continued with Smith. The girls won league titles in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2013 and 2014. The boys won four consecutive titles from 2011-14. There were many years teams finished second in league, and numbers have been strong in the program.
“For many years we had over 40 kids playing, many of which had never played another sport but knew they wouldn’t get cut from the tennis program so they tried,” Smith said.
Through the years, Chewelah has sent 25 players to the state tournament, including Smith’s own daughter Tenika Smith three times.
“The advantage of coaching in Chewelah would be that most all of our parents really support the program and appreciate the coaches,” Smith said. “Most of them know very little about tennis at the start and we don’t get criticized much. That’s another advantage of being a tennis coach!”
There was a low point during this time, as slimming enrollments and budgets caused the school district to cut the tennis program. The parents, however, rallied behind the program and it continued through the slim years.
“One of my favorite memories is taking those van rides to meets for two years because the program budget got cut and we provided our own transportation in vans,” Smith.
Coaching is probably natural for Smith. Not only has she played tennis for 45 years after beginning as a ninth grader, but Smith was an athlete in many sports.
“My dad was my biggest fan and quite a yeller at my volleyball, soccer, basketball and softball games,” Smith said. “I found out he couldn’t yell at the tennis matches and I soon challenged my way up the ladder to the No. 1 singles spot.”
Volleyball is also a big passion for Smith, she had reffed for 32 years and called over 15 state tournaments. Her son also referees games now as well. She coached high school volleyball for six years in the 1980s and have played in many Chewelah league games as well.
When coaching tennis, she enjoys working on techniques and skills in practice and then see her players incorporate it in their games. The game can be quite mental as well, meaning that players have to learn to never give up, challenge themselves, have patience, control their temper, stand up for themselves and be a team player.
“Watching someone get a smash, use spin or add another weapon to their arsenal excited me,” Smith said. “I think the friendships we make along the way are as important as the games we play. I also had two players who met at tennis and eventually got married and they asked me to marry them. I didn’t, but I was honored.”
There’s other traditions like making fleece blankets for the seniors, family fun night and pizza parties that make the season more fun and memorable that Smith will not forget. She said she will also not forget all the great coaches and assistant coaches that she has worked with throughout the years as well.
So this week’s trip to Yakima will be Smith’s last as a coach after an 18-year career. She’s looked forward to it all season and wants to make it memorable for the players. Because after all, it’s about the memories.