New coach, same lofty expectations for Pioneer boys
For 25 years under head coach Lawrence Eyre, success and Maharishi School tennis went hand in hand.
With Eyre’s sudden retirement last spring, it ended one of the most successful head coaching stints in Iowa prep history. Yet it also opened up an opportunity for a new era of Pioneer boys’ tennis.
In walked Steve Briggs, a long-time Fairfield resident and even longer time tennis player who achieved individual success first collegiately at the University of Arizona and then professionally in Europe.
Although the appointment is Briggs’ first as a head high school coach, it’s far from his first foray into the world of tennis instruction. Briggs became a tennis teaching pro when his own playing days ended and has helped coach some of the best players in the world.
“I was over teaching in Germany, and it was great fun because they hired me to teach the junior players, and three of them went on to play top-100 ATP Tour. I just kind of fell into getting to coach those guys for six months while I was working there,” said Briggs.
The coach, who has also held club jobs around the U.S., thinks his own playing experience will help him with his current coaching position. The Rock Island (Ill.) graduate grew up in a tennis family and finished third in Illinois twice in singles action.
“It’s not that a coach has to have been a world class tennis player, but I would say if you’ve had a lot of competitive experience, you can draw on that and share it with them and know what they’re going through in terms of the tension and pressure,” said Briggs.
Briggs noted Transcendental Meditation has been an important aspect of his teaching, and he believes it has had a positive impact on some of the top tennis players’ careers.
“We taught 25 of the top 100 ATP pros [TM], and three or four of them were top 10 players. By the time it was all done we taught four Wimbledon champions, including Arthur Ashe and Martina Navratilova,” Briggs said. “They come out of their first meditation and go, ‘This is really, for me, like playing tennis in the zone.’
“I always found it as a nice relationship between sports performance and meditation because I needed to be fairly calm out there,” he added.
And although Briggs is the new Pioneer coach, he’s not at all new to many of the players. In fact, the transition has been a remarkably fluid one for the first-year head man, who worked with many of the Pioneer boys years before taking the job this spring.
“I was giving private lessons to a lot of these guys last year,” said Briggs, who served as an assistant coach at Fairfield High School last season. “Kyle Cleveland and I used to do a lot of group clinics with them, and every one of those kids was in at least six or eight clinics over the last four years. Whatever they do wrong and whatever they do right we were somewhat responsible for.”
Briggs knows better than anyone, then, that the Pioneers’ cupboard is fully stocked with a great group of players. Although the Pioneers lost top seniors Sam Arsanjani and Thomas Weiss to graduation, they return four other members of last year’s Class 1A state fourth-place squad.
Headlining the group of returnees is sophomore Sam Stickels. Briggs said the sky is the limit for the budding sophomore, who has earned the No. 1 singles spot this spring after placing fourth in Class 1A doubles alongside Weiss as a freshman.
“Sam has a chance to be a state champion. He’s got the work ethic,” said Briggs. “His game has improved a lot in the last year. Technically, he’s really improved his second serve, he’s gotten quicker, he’s growing and he’s getting physically stronger.
“He’s a competitor. He loves to compete, and that’s what drives him. I think that’s one reason he’s going to excel, because he’s motivated,” Briggs added.
As good as Stickels could become, he’s not the only player on the roster with high-end potential. Freshman Chandre Morales, currently playing at the No. 4 spot, should provide consistency at the top of the team’s lineup for years to come.
“Chandre played a lot of tournaments last summer. He’s developing and has an Iowa ranking in his age group,” said Briggs.
Raphael Gelfand, the only senior in the varsity lineup, started the season at No. 2 and has the big-game experience much of his teammates lack. Gelfand finished runner-up at the district tournament as a sophomore and has been a part of the Pioneers’ state final four runs every year since his freshman campaign.
Another upperclassman, junior Solaris Nite, is among the team’s top four players and has been a varsity mainstay since coming up from the junior high ranks in 2011.
Junior Avery Mullenneaux has been a pleasant surprise this spring, working his way up the singles ladder to No. 5 as a varsity newcomer, and junior teammate Surya Sawhney has manned the No. 6 spot in the early going and will team up with Girindra Selleck at No. 3 doubles.
“It’s a young group and we’ve only got one senior on varsity,” said Briggs. “I like them. If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t have taken the job.”
In fact, the biggest challenge for the program, according to Briggs, doesn’t have to do with the talent level but in keeping numbers up. The Pioneers have a 10-member squad this year, down from 14 at the beginning of last season.
“The only thing that’s a challenge for our tennis program is simply having a pool of kids to continue to draw from,” the coach said. “We’ve only got like 50 boys in the high school at this moment, and we’ve got track and soccer and every other sport.
“I don’t have an assistant coach this year, so 10 is about all I can handle,” Briggs added. “There were a couple of newcomers who wanted to join the team this year, but I couldn’t take them because beginners would take all my time.”
Under Eyre, the Pioneers played to a 240-67 dual match record in the 25-year span. Along the way, they’ve accumulated 16 state championships and 10 state runner-up finishes. They also have made the team state final four a record eight straight times, and Briggs feels his team is certainly capable of adding to the streak.
“I told them in the team meeting before the season that I thought we had enough talent in the room to compete for a state championship,” said Briggs. “It takes a little bit of luck if you’re not a dominant team in the state ... but if we overachieve a bit we can do something really great in May.”
Having already earned a 4-0 record in duals this season, the Pioneers seem well on their way. The squad most recently beat Briggs’ former team Fairfield 8-1 and will face Keokuk today at home.