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Norwalk tennis dynasty Part 1 of 2: Building a legacy

Mark Hazelwood • May 22, 2017 at 7:30 AM

The start of a four-decade long dynasty began with four words.

In the fall of 1979, Dave Rehnborg got a visit to his Pleasant Street Elementary classroom by then-Norwalk Athletic Director Alan Pleasnick.

“I think they were just looking for a warm body at that point,” Rehnborg joked.

Pleasnick needed Rehnborg to take over the boys varsity tennis program for the upcoming 1980 season.

“When I was hired, Al said to me, ‘don’t worry about winning,’” Rehnborg said. “He said to just run a good program. And you know, I guess he was right. Because if you run a good program, the other things will take care of themselves. That always stuck with me.”

Rehnborg didn’t worry about winning — and yet, that’s all the Norwalk program has done for the past 30-plus years, including the last 14 seasons since he retired as head coach.

Within the week, the Northern Ohio League will see its final sporting events played, ending a 73-year run as one of Ohio’s oldest high school leagues.

On May 3, the Trucker tennis team clinched their final NOL title — marking the 27th league championship for the program, including 26 in a 33-year span since 1985.

The 27 championships are the most NOL titles by any athletic program among 12 schools over nearly eight decades dating back to 1944.

Since 1980, Norwalk is 581-153 overall and 430-86 in the NOL. The program also boasts a .693 winning percentage in non-league matches (151-67). In 1999, Norwalk became the first area team to reach the state semifinals of the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association team tournament at Ohio State (St. Mary C.C. advanced to state in 2002).

But when Rehnborg inherited the job, there were no visions of a sustained dynasty. He was just trying to make it through the first year.

The bare bones

Like most anything, it wasn’t quite the same in 1980 as it is today with regards to equipment and facilities.

In his first year, Rehnborg didn’t even have enough uniforms for all seven varsity players.

“We didn’t have baskets to put the tennis balls in. The only equipment we had was the tennis balls themselves,” he said. “There wasn’t even a storage shed — I kept everything in my car. There was nowhere else to put it.”

And with rough winters in Ohio, Rehnborg’s earliest teams did what had to be done in order to hit the ball around. His first practice ever conducted was inside the Pleasant Street Elementary gym.

As snow fell, Rehnborg moved practices to the playgrounds at the elementary schools at Pleasant and League Street — because they’d get plowed, while the tennis courts were completely covered.

“So we’d do that with no net, sometimes we’d string something across, whatever we could find,” Rehnborg said.

One player who attested to that was 1985 graduate Chris Bleile. Norwalk’s second-ever state qualifier — and one of three in program history to advance to state multiple times — Bleile quickly found out there were no shortcuts under Rehnborg.

“I can remember shoveling snow so we could play, because no matter what, he wasn’t canceling practice,” Bleile said. “We played our opening match our senior year while it snowed against Perkins.

“We barely had uniforms, and we didn’t have what I would call shorts,” he added. “They were extremely short, like those old NBA uniforms, and the shirts were skin tight and not comfortable at all, too.”

But quietly, something special was beginning to happen — even if no one saw it coming.

The momentum begins

Through Rehnborg’s first five seasons, Norwalk was just 37-41 overall and 34-36 in league play. Nothing special. It went just 6-8 in the NOL in 1984.

“At the beginning, all I was thinking about was trying to coach,” Rehnborg said. “How to deal with high school kids instead of fifth-graders … I worried about those things much more than wanting to build a program.”

But with Bleile anchoring the team in 1985 with a 22-7 mark, along with Steve DeBord (25-3), Bryan Haas (18-3) at singles, and David Endsley and Steve Hinckley (17-4); and Ron Crowell and Ray Scheid (19-3) at doubles — the Truckers went a perfect 20-0 overall and 14-0 in the NOL.

For the next six years, Norwalk never lost more than two matches in a season — and rolled through league play by winning 81 of 84 matches and six more NOL titles.

Talent such as Brad Emmons (111-12 from 1988-91) took off under the tutelage of Rehnborg.

“Probably more impressive was being able to extend it past 1985, initially,” said Scheid, who succeeded Rehnborg as head coach in 2004. “Graduating five seniors among the seven positions and finally getting the title, it would have been easy, if not expected, to fall down a little the next year — and it didn’t happen.

“It was five seniors who stuck it out from freshman year, and while we had people who played other sports, we really wanted to devote ourselves to tennis,” he added. “And Dave was out there every step of the way with us in the summer, playing with us, just recreational. You’d come out here and have to wait for a tennis court at night, because there were so many people waiting to play. I think it all started and got momentum from there. Everyone wanted to be a part of it.”

Bleile said the sheer success alone in that early stretch built a persona — also seen at other places — that has allowed Norwalk tennis to sustain itself.

“A lot of girls in Huron, growing up they want to play volleyball for Don Wood,” he said. “A lot of boys growing up want to play football for John Livengood at St. Paul and Ed Nasonti at Bellevue. Same for Willard and Bob Haas when they were huge.

“Over time, a lot of kids simply just wanted to play tennis at Norwalk,” he added.

The streak

After two down years in 1992 and 1993 (13-21 combined), the program again won the NOL in 1994 and 1995, but got edged out by Upper Sandusky in 1996.

But in 1997, the Truckers went 20-1 overall, which included a 14-0 mark in league play that everyone associated with NOL tennis got used to seeing.

For a seven-year span, Norwalk never lost a league match — reeling off 101 straight NOL wins total. In 1999, the Truckers made area history by avenging a regular season loss (4-1) to unbeaten Perkins, beating the Pirates in the OTCA regional final (3-2) in the Northwest — advancing to the state semifinals.

The Truckers handily lost to Canton Central Catholic and Gahanna Columbus Academy, but it was yet another accomplishment in the Rehnborg era. It’s still one of only two times an area boys tennis team reached the OTCA state semifinals in the 42-year history of the tournament (St. Mary C.C. in 2002).

From 1999-01, Norwalk claimed all seven first-team league positions at the NOL tournament, and were one win away from doing it for a fourth straight time in 2002.

Current head coach Chris Higgins was a part of that streak as a senior in 2002 — but notes it was also the only year he made the varsity lineup.

“It took a lot just to be a varsity player,” Higgins said. “Many of us played two or three years of junior varsity, and the greatest satisfaction was just being in the top seven. I don’t even know half the time if we knew there was a streak, because it was more of an expectation.

“Throw out numbers for wins or titles in a row at us, and we just knew the goal every season was to win the league,” he added. “Streak or not, that was the goal, and it still is to this day.”

Lasting legacy

With his son, Steve, reaching state as a senior in 2003, Rehnborg retired after 24 seasons, with a record of 368-94, winning 16 NOL titles. He’s stayed on as a volunteer assistant in the years since, along with two stints as the Norwalk athletic director.

“He was organized and systematic,” Bleile said of Rehnborg. “Like a basketball coach makes halftime adjustments, when you got called over to the fence, he always, always found something. So astute. He was our coach, but also felt like a teammate, and he gave us ownership of the team.

“I think that’s part of the reason why they are still so successful today,” he added. “Ray and Chris drew from that. And with Ray and Dave both with Chris on the current staff now — that’s an incredible staff to have at a school that size in our area.”

For his part, Rehnborg said it took a lot from many to turn Norwalk into a perceived ‘hotbed’ location for tennis.

“If you have players and coaches that work at your sport, and you have parents and administrators who support that, then it doesn’t matter the location or what the facilities are,” he said. “Everyone loves nice facilities, but we have a tennis family in Norwalk, and it comes from players working and parents supporting them.

“That can happen in any location in a lot of places, I think,” Rehnborg added. “It’s a team sport, but tennis is an individual game. It doesn’t take a lot of people to play. Players can get better on their own. I had kids surpass others by a lot — just because they simply worked so hard at it.”

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