A Higher Level: Learning the Big Picture from a Small-College Tennis Team, Carmen DeKoster, College Tennis, Dana Yost, Ellis Press, Hugh Curtler, Jamie Horswell Kidder, Mike Sterner, Minnesota, mustangs, SMSU, Southwest State Women's Tennis Team, Tennis
Today begins NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) thirty days to write 50,000 words. I’m diving into a new project, so my blog posts will be sparse until December.
But, I’m thrilled to announce that today, November 1st, is also the release date of A Higher Level: Learning the Big Picture from a Small-College Tennis Team by Dana Yost. Today, Dana has offered this wonderful guest blog about his new book. Back to writing for me. The blog podium is yours, Dana!
In April 2000, when I was the editor of the daily newspaper in Marshall, Minnesota, I took a photo of three long-time, successful coaches at Southwest Minnesota State University. Their names were Mike Sterner, Carmen DeKoster and Hugh Curtler. I had them pose outside of the physical education building on campus, in front of a replica wood-spoked covered wagon with the words “Go Mustangs,” painted in gold on the sideboard.
The school’s athletic teams are called the Mustangs, and SMSU is located on rural Midwest prairie, on ground once broken by nineteenth-century pioneers. And the three coaches were pioneers, a century later, in their own important ways. So the covered wagon was a natural back drop for the photo: All three were being inducted that spring into the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Hall of Fame — Sterner for wrestling, DeKoster for women’s basketball and Curtler for women’s tennis.
Little did I know that slightly more than a decade later, I’d write a book in which all three coaches were quoted and one of them, Hugh Curtler, was the central character.
But it has come to pass: My new book, A Higher Level: Learning the Big Picture from a Small-College Tennis Team, launched today by Ellis Press.
The book is a combination of three genres, if you will: local and regional history, sports and cultural history, and a sort of how-to-build-a-winning-organization guide with insights that should apply not only to college sports teams but business, education, government, churches, and other organizations looking for team-building, leadership and management methods that have proved to work.
And hopefully, it is not a dry type of any of those three genres! The book is the story of the Southwest State women’s team from 1979 to 1992, the fourteen seasons that Curtler was its head coach. It’s a very interesting team with a dramatic, almost Hoosiers-like arc, wrapped around many compelling, memorable personal stories about Curtler and his players.
And it is inspirational: When Curtler became coach in 1979, the team had existed for three seasons, going through three coaches and playing only partial schedules. He inherited facilities that opponents openly mocked and sometimes tried to boycott. There was no funding for scholarships or recruiting, and the team had bake sales to raise money for travel. By the end of his fourteen seasons, the team had become one of the best small-college women’s tennis programs in the country — winning nine consecutive Northern Sun Conference titles, regularly finishing among the top teams at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) national tournament, producing several All-Americans, and two winners of perhaps college’s tennis most prestigious honor, the Arthur Ashe Award for Leadership and Scholarship. Curtler himself was named the NAIA national coach of the year in 1990.
Not satisfied with dominating on the small-college level, this little team from a remote part of the Midwest prairie began to regularly compete against — and sometimes defeat — teams from NCAA Division I universities. Major colleges: The University of Minnesota, University of Iowa, Iowa State University, Creighton University, Wichita State University.
Remarkable stuff, and the fact that it was accomplished in the conditions and circumstances in which it was — a home outdoor court with an asphalt surface, open to harsh and cold Minnesota spring winds, downwind from the stinky emissions from one of the country’s largest corn-processing plants, and indoor “courts” that really were nothing more than a pair of courts whose borders were marked out by plastic tape on top of a slick hardwood basketball floor — makes it even more remarkable.
I knew some of that before I started working on A Higher Level. For much of the 1980s, I was the sports editor of the Marshall paper and often covered Curtler and his team. But as I interviewed former players, researched old records and stories, and had many conversations with Curtler, I began to see that that there was even more to the tennis team’s story than all of its victories and trophies.
These young women have much to tell us about the virtues of hard work; of believing in yourself and one another — despite what others may say; about overcoming serious injury; and about learning to thrive in a atmosphere of people with diverse ideas and backgrounds. Over the latter half of Curtler’s run as coach, he recruited many international players, especially from Colombia and Northern Europe. They became, in effect, metaphor for both nineteenth-century immigrants and today’s new immigrants, and they quickly bonded with a bunch of Minnesota small-town and farm girls to form a powerhouse tennis team: The 1989 Southwest State team had five players — five of the six starters — who either were or would become All-Americans: — two from Colombia, one from The Netherlands, and two from Minnesota.
And did I mention they won all those years by doing things the right way?
They didn’t cheat, they were stars in the classroom as much as they were on the tennis court.
The second of those is an important piece of the tennis team’s story, because it is a vital link between Curtler and his players. The coach was not your traditional college athletic coach. The direct descendant of a Revolutionary War hero (Gen. Hugh Mercer), Curtler was an academic of national renown before he ever coached a women’s tennis match. He remained so after he started coaching: He earned his PhD in philosophy at Northwestern University, founded and directed Southwest State’s Honors Program, chaired its philosophy department, authored twelve books and served on national boards and organizations that focused on education, philosophy and ethics. He had high standards as a scholar and expected his players to have the same: Many Southwest State players were members of the Honors Program, reserved for the school’s top students. Several became academic All-Americans or won other national and regional academic awards. Many became teachers and coaches themselves, or business leaders.
“We, in the Honors Program, with Hugh — it was a necessity that we had to be good students,” former player Katy Pivec Hansen, an academic All-American, said.
The players and Curtler are proud of what they attained and how they did it. They believe they stand in stark contrast to some of the crazed incidents that have plagued Division I sports in recent years. And they believe that the way they pulled together, winning, setting new standards at a minor sport in a small college in an out-of-the-way town, is something for the ages, a legacy worthy of a protecting and sharing. They were in the sort of sport at the sort of place no one normally would need to care about. But their success, their courage, their spirit of adventure give us reason to care.
When she was inducted into the SMSU athletic Hall of Honor in February 2011, Carolina Gomez, a two-time All-American, said: “They told me I could have five to ten minutes to talk today. I could spend five to ten hours just sharing with you all the wonderful times I had here playing tennis and being part of this program. … Everyone at SSU was so enthusiastic, and so supportive of our team and our success. I never met so many people who had a genuine desire to see us succeed as I met in Marshall.”
These young women did what we so often think America has lost the capacity to do — they built something from nothing, their only resources being their hearts and intellect, and one another. And what great hearts they had. And what a great bond they often still have. As the book began coming together, I’d mention to one player or another what someone else had said. Soon enough, some of the former players began saying it was time to have a reunion of the tennis program. One of them said she’d prefer a tennis reunion over a high school reunion. Another, who still lives in Marshall, offered to host it. Another who also lives in Marshall offered to coordinate it.
That’s loyalty. That’s friendship. That’s paying tribute to a program that changed your life in ways that still affect you, twenty-five to thirty years later.
The story of the Southwest State women’s tennis team from 1979 to 1992 is about many things, I suppose. Ultimately it is about this: a celebration of the human spirit, something former player Jamie Horswell Kidder captured when she told me:
“It was sweet, memorable, and an amazing and rare opportunity we all grew from.
Thank you SSU, thank you Coach, thank you team.”
The book is available online through my publisher’s web site, http://www.ellispress.com/, and will be available on Amazon after Christmas. For those who want the e-book version, it already is available for Kindle on Amazon.