About 20 years ago, Crystal Lake South coach Don Nead found out something about his tennis players that changed his approach to coaching.
In a goal-setting exercise before the season, Nead expected his players to set some typical goals of winning conference or possibly qualifying for state. He was surprised when the No. 1 answer was to have fun.
“It kind of changed my philosophy of coaching,” Nead said. “Some [players] are so competitive they forget the fun. I don’t think any of our girls forgot the fun.”
The Gators certainly had fun from a winning perspective this season, going undefeated in dual matches (19-0) and winning the Fox Valley Conference Valley Division and the FVC Tournament.
For these accomplishments, Nead is the Northwest Herald Girls Tennis Coach of the Year, as selected by the sports staff with input from area coaches. Also given strong consideration was Jacobs’ Jon Betts, who led his team to a South Elgin Sectional team title and second place at the FVC Tournament.
Nead got a glimpse of how good his team could be at a season-opening tournament in Schaumburg. The Gators won the team title by winning at every position.
“After our first tournament I knew we had the depth,” Nead said. “The depth was really nice.”
That depth extended all season to the FVC Tournament, where again the Gators were dominant.
“We won four out of the seven divisions,“ Nead said of the conference tournament. “Every person on our team medaled.”
Nead doesn’t judge his performance on how well the players at the top of his lineup play. With 74 players out for the team, he takes a personal interest in seeing all of his players progress and keeps detailed records for each player, even for exhibition or challenge matches.
“Getting every player on the team the opportunity to succeed is quite a challenge,” Nead said. “If I don’t feel I’ve given every player a chance to reach their potential, then I’m not pleased with myself.”
Success means more than on-the-court accomplishments to Nead. At a match this year that South won handily, he was surprised at the reaction from the other team.
“ ‘Your girls are the nicest players ever,’ ” Nead said the opposing coach told him. “That makes a coach proud also.”
After four years playing No. 1 singles, the Gators will be without Marisa Thome next season. Thome qualified for state this season in doubles after teaming up with her sister Julia.
Playing for Nead has been fun, Marisa Thome said, because Nead stressed the team aspects of the sport.
“We were all a team, especially this year,” she said. “We were always together.”
He also was a constant source of support and strategic advice, Marisa Thome said. Capping the undefeated season by winning the conference tournament was a perfect finish to her last season on the team.
“[Nead] is really encouraging, and he always knows what to do,” she said. “Winning conference was the best way to end it.”