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Norwalk tennis dynasty Part 2 of 2: Sustained excellence

Mark Hazelwood • May 23, 2017 at 7:30 AM

The sounds underneath the blue and yellow steel sign never change.

Shoes persistently squeak on the hard surface. The unmistakable noise of the ball being smacked by a racquet — with the occasional rattling of a chain link fence — are constant.

But the sign at the Norwalk tennis courts represents frequent change that has become a rite of passage in the spring in the Maple City.

Almost every year for the past 30-plus years, new numbers have been added to the sign. A total of 26 times over the past 33 years, to be exact. Those numbers represent the number of Northern Ohio League championships the Trucker boys tennis program has claimed since 1985.

The NOL has seen its final sporting events played, ending a 73-year run as one of Ohio’s oldest high school leagues — with six of the seven members schools bound for the Sandusky Bay Conference next fall.

On May 3, the Norwalk tennis team clinched their final NOL title — the 27th league championship for the program.The 27 titles are the most NOL championships by any athletic program among 12 schools over nearly eight decades dating back to 1944.

But it' hasn’t been strictly dominating the NOL for the Truckers.

Since 1980, Norwalk is 581-153 overall (430-86 NOL). It 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 in 2002.

Many who have been involved with the program often point to the sign's history as a huge impact.

But can just looking at a simple small sign every day be that important?

“I think so, for sure,” said senior Andrew Herner, Norwalk’s No. 1 singles player for the past three seasons. “There are so many people that play recreationally here, and they see that sign up there. They want to know what it’s about.

“When you see all the years we’ve won, almost every year, the success makes you go out there and want to get your piece of history up there,” he added. “It’s really encouraging.”

Under pressure

On the bus ride home when the Norwalk tennis team clinched a share of the NOL title in the 2004 season, then-head coach Ray Scheid cried the whole way home.

“It was probably more relief than excitement that we were able to do it,” Scheid said. “The internal pressures of 2004 were the most I ever had in athletics. There’s no question.”

Few could blame Scheid. It was his first year as head coach, taking over for his former head coach, Dave Rehnborg, who went 368-94 with 16 league titles from 1980-2003.

The unfortunate things about tennis is, it's one of those sports that isn't followed like others, and we know that,” Scheid said. “But within the tennis community, with Dave moving up to athletic director that year, winning the league was something I wanted more than anything.

“Just to continue the dominance he created for the sport,” he added.

Scheid's first four seasons resulted in league titles, but the Truckers stumbled with rare down seasons in 2008 (9-9) and 2009 (5-13).

That meant even more pressure for incoming freshman Trevor Bowers in 2010. Already with the pressure of following brothers Ryan and Kyle (118-13) — along with the hype built around him for years — Bowers also had the pressure of making sure Norwalk bounced back as a team.

“There was definitely big expectations, but Kyle came back from college (Malone) and hit with me every single day,” Trevor said. “I had a great supporting cast with my brother, as well as my grandfather. And Coach Scheid was a huge factor.

“But also give credit to Harry Love, who was a great No. 2 player behind me,” Bowers added. “He goes down sixth all-time in wins (101-15) at Norwalk and doesn't get enough credit. There was definitely pieces in place to turn it back around.”

Higgins took over as head coach for Scheid in 2011, as the trend followed with Scheid succeeding Rehnborg as AD.

With Bowers at first singles, the Truckers went 70-7 overall and a perfect 48-0 in the NOL. He finished as the all-time wins leader in program history (123-10) and reached the state championships three times.

“This isn't just tennis, it's a dynasty. And those three coaches put an emphasis on that,” Bowers said. “Embrace it. Look at the wins, look at the former No. 1 singles players and go off that. They really put their whole lives into the program, and I think that's why it's so good every year.”

Not as easy as it looks

It's a question not easily answered for many reasons. But when Higgins gets asked the inevitable, the 2002 NHS graduate feels like he can somewhat acknowledge the obvious.

“Is it hard to maintain a dynasty? Yes, it is,” he said. “I'll be the first to admit every year will be a constant challenge with so many more options out there for kids to go play tennis. Part of my job is to take the Norwalk tennis brand, and make sure it's something people look at in a positive way.

“Because if we can keep that winning tradition and identity moving forward, I think we can continue to churn new eras as time goes on,” Higgins added. “I feel like I'm the caretaker of that lineage.”

Higgins, too, felt the pressures of the job almost immediately.

“I'm 24, going on 25 years old and become the head coach for the boys and girls teams,” he said. “And all I'm thinking is, 'wow, I hope I can do this.' But what's really helped me is having both former head coaches as my assistants throughout that time. Whether it was Dave or Ray, that really helped give me the confidence to do this job.”

But in the post-Bowers years of 2014 and 2015, the Truckers struggled by their lofty standards. Norwalk was 9-8 (6-6 NOL) in 2014, and though it went 17-4 overall (10-2 NOL) in 2015, it wasn't enough to win another league crown.

That put a lot of pressure on Herner to set a tone at first singles — and bring the gold back last year and this season.

“Those first two years were tough,” Herner said. “But absolutely there was pressure, especially when you know the history involved. I had to try and carry it on and be a top guy to help keep our team strong and deep.”

In 2016, Norwalk was 18-2 (12-0). This year, the Truckers went 18-3 (12-0) and claimed six of the seven first team positions at the NOL tournament on May 8.

In total, 116 players in the past 36 seasons have been selected first team all-NOL over 81 singles and doubles positions. Only seven times since 1982 has a Norwalk player not been a first-team selection.

Time to reflect

Next spring will bring a new set of challenges for Norwalk, which enters the Sandusky Bay Conference, where challenges like Clyde, Perkins and Port Clinton await among others.

But with the NOL’s end fresh, it's brought great reflection to many associated with the program.

“The NOL was one of the oldest leagues in the state, so to be mentioned at all with some of the great teams and be able to say we won the most titles is something so many people can take to heart,” Higgins said. “The Norwalk tennis family stays in touch. No matter where they are, former players are keeping track how we're doing now. So to say the 27 titles is the most, it's the greatest feeling you can have as someone involved.”

Scheid noted that in the past, opposing coaches sometimes joked to him about who was finishing in second place.

“That's a great feeling, that we know we've prepared our kids to that point,” he said. “We're not the greatest team in Ohio, we know that. But the goal was to always be the best in our league, and to be able to do that 26 times in 33 years is pretty special.”

Rehnborg — who says staying on as an assistant coach while retired is far from work — has been humbled by the program's lengthy run.

“The excitement and enthusiasm after that first title, it just built,” he said. “Nobody from the next group wanted to let anyone down — it just kind of goes back to winning breeds winning. It's been carried on by Ray and Chris, which is one of the big joys I get out of it, to coach with two former players.

“To be compared to any of those great NOL programs is humbling, but I take great pride in it,” Rehnborg added. “We're all proud of what we've done. And it takes a community. Something like that doesn't happen by itself. It's taken a community effort to get to 27 titles and have that all come together.”

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