ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Lonnie Isaac is moving up in the hierarchy of tennis coaching, but he’s not moving far.
The successful boys’ and girls’ coach at Hillsboro High School for the past six will now be coaching women and men at Tabor College.
“I’ve always thought the opportunity would arise,” Isaac said of college coaching. “And (wife) Tracy and I have no particular desire to leave Hillsboro. I could see us retiring here.”
During his six years at HHS, Isaac coached 15 different athletes to a total of 24 state tournament appearances. He was twice named Class 3A Coach of the Year.
“I really enjoyed the kids,” he said. “There was no reason for me to leave. I wasn’t actively seeking a job.”
In fact, over the past few years, Isaac had been courted by both Tabor and Bethel College, where he played on conference championship teams. He turned down jobs offers because the timing wasn’t right.
This time, when Kory Unruh resigned as Tabor’s head coach to take a teaching job at HHS, Isaac was ready to talk about the opening.
“I didn’t know when the time would come, but I just feel real comfortable with the switch now,” Isaac said.
“I always thought the college job would be at Tabor, and to be real honest, it fits my beliefs a little better,” he added. “I grew up in a Mennonite Brethren church and I don’t have any problems with the type of program I need to run and what Tabor wants me to do.”
Isaac feels Tabor wants him to find student-athletes who not only excel on the court, but also fit in well with the school. For Isaac, that means a particular focus on recruiting in central Kansas and among athletes who share Tabor’s Christian emphasis.
“Those are the kind of kids who are most likely going to come to Tabor and want to stay there for four years,” he said. “You ask them, ‘If you were to get hurt playing tennis, would you stay at Tabor College?’ You hope you get a kid who says yes, because then you’re recruiting the right kid.”
He feels his longtime connection with the U.S. Tennis Association will help him recruit beyond Kansas, too, and even overseas-as long as the fit with Tabor is right.
Isaac inherits a program where both the women’s and men’s teams have been near the top in the KCAC the past few seasons. But that isn’t good enough.
“I’m excited that I’m inheriting a good team,” Isaac said. “Second or third in the conference is an accomplishment in itself. I think Kory did a great job and he at least kept recruiting after he resigned to help out the program.
“One of the bigger challenges is knocking down that last big door,” he added. “That’s a significant challenge. We’ve got to find some players probably of the caliber Tabor hasn’t had in 10 or 15 years. If we can get that strength at the top, move the top players down, we’ll have the depth to compete for a championship.
“I truly believe conference championships, at least in my experience, have been won in spots 3 through 6, the lower part of your lineup.”
Isaac said he isn’t afraid of the recruiting challenge, something he never faced while coaching at the high school level.
“That’s something that has always piqued my interest,” he said. “In high school sports, whether it’s basketball or tennis, you really don’t have much of a choice about the kids who come out. You work with what’s there.
“To go out and try to form your own team under a college system, I’m really excited about it. I think I have good connections after six years of being in the high school game, which was real important to me.”
Like other small-college coaches, Isaac realizes part of his challenge is recruiting with less scholarship money than bigger schools and even some KCAC schools offer.
“I know Don (Brubacher, athletic director) is trying to give us coaches more funds that will enable us to go out and compete for some of the top athletes that maybe we’re losing to the Bethels and Bethanys right now,” Isaac said.
“I know what the parameters are, what I’ve been told I can work with at Tabor. I’ve just got to accept that and build the program within those guidelines.”
Beyond recruiting, Isaac said coaching at the college level will require a different approach than coaching in high school.
“At a small 3A school, I’m dealing with, in a good year, maybe a couple of kids who are really committed to the game,” he said. “At college, once you get things established and people recruited, you hope you have eight really solid players.
“As coach, there’s not so much teaching involved in terms of strokes and how they hit the ball,” he added. “I think you’re coaching a little bit more in structuring points, maybe the mental aspects of the game, and how to open up the court better.”
Isaac said it was important to him that the women’s and men’s coaching jobs be part of the same package.
“That was a main priority with me,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do one or the other wherever I was going to coach in college. The way the KCAC is set up, with the women’s main season being in fall and the men’s in spring, I think it makes sense to have one person working with both programs. I think you can do some neat things
“I know during my time in college, the men and women practiced together and did drills together, I think it’s good for team unity.”
Isaac believes the change in coaching venues won’t have a significant affect on his work as director of the city’s recreation program.
“When I took the rec job three years ago, it was like if I’m going to make ends meet, I’m going to have to do some coaching,” he said. “There’s never been a problem with that. The rec job is flexible enough that I’m going to get my hours in. It all balances out over the course of the year.
“The time of the college seasons is about the same (as in high school),” he added. “The only difference is in college you’re out recruiting. A lot of that can be done on weekend tournaments and making calls at home.”
Isaac is a bit more concerned, though, that his work off campus may hinder access to his athletes.
“It was always real important to me during my college days to have coaches who were on campus,” he said. “If you had a three-hour block available when you weren’t in class, you could call up the coach and be out hitting tennis balls.
“It’s just something I’m going to have to work at, to make sure my players have access to me when they need me,” he said.
Isaac will find at least two familiar faces on his team when the school year begins. At HHS he coached Naila Kunantaeva, now a Tabor senior, and Michael Hagen, an incoming freshman and Isaac’s only four-time state qualifier.
“I’m looking forward to working with them again and I think they feel the same,” he said. “But I think they may find out that my expectations of them will be a little different at this level than they were in high school.”