With the sun is high in the air and students are wearily flooding out of Shawnee Mission East, English Teacher Andy Gibbs laces up his tennis shoes in preparation for an afternoon directing his lancer tennis team. Gibbs spends three hours everyday during the week on the Harmon Park tennis courts working to get the tennis program back to a state championship. At the conclusion of last year Gibbs took over the program after 19 year head coach Sue Chipman retired.
In those 19 years practices have been the same. Players show up, they play a match, and that is the end of practice. This system has been successful, winning 14 state championships. Even so, Gibbs decided it was time for a change.
Over the offseason Gibbs and new assistant coach Frank Gagnon worked to develop a new practice routine that meets the needs of the players. According to Gibbs the biggest complaint from players was that they felt they did not improve over the course of the season.
“I really like the differences because it feels like an actual practice,” senior tennis player Camille Moore said. “We are more productive this year than we been the last couple of years.”
The new practice agenda includes 20 minutes of warmups and running to get players ready to play. The major change comes with drills, during which the team spends time during practice working on specific parts of their game such as forehands, backhands, and serving. Practice will also include matches to keep the athletes ready for matches.
The same practice system will also apply for the boys season which starts in the spring. Sophomore Jack Mikkelson will be going into his second season with East tennis this spring. According to Mikkelson the practice experience will be very different.
“The practices last year were really fun, but I think Gibbs’ new drills are trying to make us better and honestly that’s the way to do it,” Mikkelson said. “I think the whole team is going to better as a result.”
The practices have changed in nature but they are not the only thing that has seen change. This fall marks the first time that a structured tryout was held in 19 years.
According to players, in previous years coach Chipman determined who was on varsity and junior varsity through word of mouth and observation during the first few practices. Essentially, the rosters were set before the first practice began.
Beginning the first day of school, the 96 girls trying out for the tennis team were randomly placed into groups for pool play. Pool play took place for four days. At the conclusion of the pool play the players who won the matches were placed into a bracket for tournament play. At the end of tryouts the top 32 players were placed on the varsity and junior varsity teams.
“Things were much more competitive [at this year’s tryouts], but the hard thing is anytime you start identifying a group of players is that you have players that don’t end up where they want to be,” Gibbs said.
The 64 remaining tennis players were placed into two groups known as blue and white. Those teams each practice for an hour twice a week after the two hour varsity and jv practices. The shorter hours for the blue and white practices has caused a number of players who did not make varsity or junior varsity to quit East tennis according to Senior Emily Kohring.
“We [the seniors] were frustrated and I wish I could be on the team[Varsity and JV], but I know that there are a lot of good freshmen,” Kohring said.
Although Gibbs has brought many changes to the tennis team, he has kept one tradition concrete: the team does not cut anyone. The goal is to get as many people playing tennis as possible.
“The great thing about what we are trying to do is that we are still giving those kids an opportunity to play tennis,” Gibbs said. “[At] a lot of other places they wouldn’t have an opportunity to play high school tennis.”
Gibbs is confident that the changes will help continue the success that East has seen over the years in the sport. Since the school opened in 1958 East has won 44 state championships in both girls and boys tennis girls combined.
“I think success obviously comes from the talent level that we have and then also the intention of getting better, and getting players better from where they were,” Gibbs said. “This is a way to ensure that we continue to have a successful program.”