Co-coach of the year helps regain respectabilty for ALHS girls’ tennis team

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 19, 2002

Albert Lea High School athletic teams have had their share of struggles the last decade or so and, during that span, a number of head coaches have taken over teams and talked about turning around the program.

For Sean Gillam, it’s been more than just talk. To the surprise of many, Gillam has helped restore respectability to the ALHS girls’ tennis team for the first time in, oh, about a decade or so.

Three years ago the Tigers won one meet under coach David Kalis, ending a streak of winless seasons that nobody really bothered to keep track of. Last year, with Gillam taking over as head coach midway through the season, the Tigers won twice.

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This year’s Tigers surpassed most everyone’s expectations, finishing 4-5 in the Big Nine Conference and 6-8 overall while reaching the final four of the Section 2AA tournament.

For his efforts, Gillam was recognized by his peers as co-coach of the year for Big Nine girls’ tennis.

While honored by the award, Gillam is quick to deflect much of the credit, and said he’d be happy to trade it in if he could.

&uot;It shows some teams are starting to respect us,&uot; said Gillam, 30. &uot;But I would have traded it in easily if at least one girl could have been all-conference. This is an award, basically, for everyone in Albert Lea. We gained respect for tennis, and hopefully we can keep that.&uot;

Tennis was not an option for Gillam in high school at Decatur, Mich., a small town that did not offer the sport. He took up the game while in the Air Force, becoming skilled enough to play for his base team.

&uot;I always loved sports and participating, and I had a friend in the Air Force who was rated in the top 10 in high school in Kentucky,&uot; said Gillam. &uot;He was a left-hander, and a very good player, and he taught me how to play tennis.&uot;

Eventually, through consistent, finesse-like play, the student was able defeat the teacher.

&uot;I was able to beat him, once in a while, even though he’d hit 100 mph serves to my 60 mph,&uot; said Gillam. &uot;If you can get the ball back to the big hitters, you can beat them.&uot;

After four years at the University of Minnesota, Gillam spent a year as a student teacher at Hopkins North, where he said he learned a lot about winning from observing and talking to successful coaches.

Gillam and his wife, LeAnn, who works in Mason City, moved to Northwood three years ago when he was hired here.

Gillam attributes the Tigers’ turnaround to a number of factors, though the biggest would have to be a time commitment among both coaches and players.

&uot;One thing that was big was assistant coach Mike Miller really picked up his game with me,&uot; said Gillam. &uot;We played a lot in the offseason at doubles against some of the great players in town &045; Roy Nystrom, Orrie Jirele, Tom Dyrdal. When we first played them, we couldn’t compete. This year, we took a 3-2 lead, and you could see their focus returning. They still won, but you could see the respect issue had risen.&uot;

Volunteer assistant coaches Bill Kepple, Gary Koeder and Bill Buege have also helped, working with varsity and junior varsity players at specific skills.

&uot;And they have taught the girls about tennis court etiquette and attitude, especially,&uot; said Gillam. &uot;If you go out there and present yourself as confident, it helps. Those guys have put in a lot of hours for free. Without them, we couldn’t have done it.&uot;

Foremost, according to Gillam, is the players themselves.

&uot;You need athletes willing to put in the time and effort,&uot; said the coach, who pointed to the Rochester Mayo meet as a turning point and an example of the Tigers’ mental toughness.

&uot;We talked after the Mayo meet,&uot; said Gillam. &uot;Mayo did not show us proper respect, and we didn’t play at our level. We issued a challenge, and the girls responded. The next week we focused in and got a couple wins. It was probably the turning point of the season. It’s tough to play the top teams if you’re not on top of your game.&uot;

Though Gillam is concerned about the upcoming referendum and the possible elimination of girls’ tennis at ALHS, he’s looking forward to continued progress with only three seniors graduating, the No. 3 doubles team and No. 3 singles player.

&uot;We’ve gained respect,&uot; said Gillam. &uot;The next step is to become a winning team. The girls know if they want to reach their goals next year, we have to put in some more work through the summer and through next season.&uot;