Barb Rawlsky-Willett, seen leading her team in a final cheer, stepped down as the Plymouth girls’ tennis coach after 29 years at the helm. RC Greenwood. (click for larger version)
June 18, 2012PLYMOUTH — Things will admittedly be a bit different for Barb Rawlsky-Willett when next spring rolls around.
For the first time in three decades, she won't be at the helm of a tennis team at Plymouth Regional High School.
The longtime coach, who also got the program started 29 years ago, announced that she would be stepping down at the end of this most recent season.
"It's just time for me to do other things with my life," Rawlsky-Willett said. "I've been teaching tennis since I was 16 years old."
Along the way, the veteran coach has coached at just about every level, coaching junior high and high school kids, coaching at community colleges and also coaching a college women's team. The only level she hasn't coached at is the college men's level.
There is no doubt that Rawlsky-Willett has had a busy schedule the last few years. In addition to her duties as the Plymouth girls' tennis coach, she's also taught tennis privately, is a part-time physical education teacher at the Russell Elementary School in Rumney and operates a lodge in Rumney with her family.
"Really, it was my fourth part time job," she said of coaching. "It was tough running from one job to another."
The timing was also right for Rawlsky-Willett, as she was able to work out an agreement with a former player to come back and coach the program moving forward, assuming all things move through the proper channels before next year.
"She's really enthusiastic," Rawlsky-Willett said. "I just want the program to survive."
She noted that when a change takes place after one person has been at the helm for a long time, there's bound to be a tough year or two, but she expects things to bounce back nicely.
"With a change, the first year's always tough, but then it will pick back up," she said. "And we had a good group of sophomores (this year). That's a start."
Rawlsky-Willett began her Plymouth coaching career after coming from Minnesota, where she was also a coach for a number of years. She formed the tennis program at Plymouth Regional and in the early years, coached both boys and girls.
The team met with success in the first few years, with two of her players winning the doubles championship in 1989.
"Right away there was some success in the program," she said.
Rawlsky-Willett also had the opportunity to coach both of her daughters on the Plymouth team. Both went on to play college tennis at one level or another.
Of course, over the past 29 years, there are also many stories and anecdotes that often get missed in the general grind of a regular season.
She remembers one year when there was no JV program, so she had 35 girls on the varsity tennis team. Needless to say, it was a tough year.
Rawlsky-Willett noted that more than 50 girls came out for the program, so she needed to thin the ranks a bit. The first few practices, she used the gym and just ran the girls the entire practice.
"Some of them left," she said. "But I kept 35 girls that year."
The players rotated in and out of practices and games, with numerous players getting chances on the court, but it was a bit much.
"I rotated myself silly by the time the season was over," she said. "I don't think I knew everyone's name."
However, she remembers that that particular year, the kids were fantastic. They knew that with such big numbers, everyone would see limited time, but they were OK with it.
Over the course of the years, she is also proud that the tennis team featured kids from all but one of the district's numerous towns and she knows that the team brought kids together who might not have otherwise known each other.
"They got to know each other better," Rawlsky-Willett said. "It got rid of some of the preconceived notions."
The opportunity to coach at the high school level can provide many different highs and lows and for each kid, those highs and lows can be extremely different.
This year's team featured a couple of players who had never played tennis before. However, they stuck with the practices and worked hard at improving their game throughout the season.
In the last week of the year the veteran coach heard some screaming from one of the courts. Worried, she raced over to see what was wrong.
But nothing was wrong. In fact, it was just the opposite. One of the new players, someone who had never picked up a racquet prior to this season, was screaming with joy after getting her serve in twice in a row.
"Win-loss records matter, but it's not carved in gold too," she said. "It's a sport for a lifetime."
And teaching that sport that kids can take with them is something Rawlsky-Willett has especially enjoyed.
She has seen many players go on to play at the collegiate level and one of her former captains actually met her husband on the tennis courts in college.
The veteran coach has made it a habit of giving each graduating senior a can of balls at their last match and urges them to take their racquet and those balls with them to college.
"I tell them to take their racquet and that can of balls and go to their college tennis courts," she said. "It's free and good-looking boys play tennis."
With a good sense of humor and a knowledge of the game, it's no wonder that players from years past continue to keep in touch with Rawlsky-Willett over the years. She notes that one player she coached in Minnesota in the late 1970s is still in contact with her to this date.
"It's neat to see them grow up and become adults," the veteran coach said.
Tennis has provided Rawlsky-Willett with many great memories, but there may not be one more touching than the story of a girl who came to her tennis camp a number of years ago. She was excited to join the tennis team the next spring, but was involved in a horrific snowboarding accident that left her paralyzed.
Rawlsky-Willett worked with the girls on playing in a wheelchair and she was still able to join the tennis team.
The squad, wanting to do more for their teammate, held a play-a-thon to try and raise money for a tennis wheelchair, an expensive venture in and of itself.
While the squad didn't raise quite enough money to cover the expense of the chair, they were able to send their teammate and her mother to a wheelchair tennis camp in Massachusetts. As luck would have it, at the end of the camp, there was a high-end tennis wheelchair given to one of the campers and Rawlksy-Willett's player got it.
"We got that for her," she said, remembering the team's reaction to seeing their teammate come home with that prize.
"And she still plays," Rawlksy-Willett says. "She's an inspiration."
There's no doubt that after 29 years and hundreds of students, there are a lot of people who can say the same thing about Barb Rawlsky-Willett.
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at email@example.com or 569-3126