MANSFIELD — Tearing a page from Urban Meyer’s Manual on Relentless Recruiting seems to be working for St. Peter’s girls tennis coach Dave Fleming.
An avid gardener, the 77-year-old Fleming is leaving no ground untilled in cultivating his program. Heading into Wednesday’s home match with Marion Harding, the Spartans were 12-1 with titles in the Northwest Ohio Catholic School Association Tournament and the Bucyrus Invitational, and seconds in invites hosted by Ontario and Mount Vernon.
Fleming started with four girls 12 years ago and now oversees what he considers a bumper crop of 17 players with the help of long-time assistants Siggie Hahn and Liz Bacon.
“When I first started coaching, a lot of girls were playing soccer,” the Lakewood Racquet Club Hall of Famer said. “So what I started to do was get to them early. I had to hustle. I went around and saw them in seventh grade. I’d find out which girls wanted to play.”
Fleming had a net rigged up inside Bob Frye Gymnasium, had lines marked off with duct tape and had the girls serve into the deuce court — or, in this case, the free throw circle.
“What had been happening is that we would have a ninth-grader, but she would be intimidated on the courts, so we got them started earlier,” Fleming said. “It took about a year to catch on.
“My first year nobody wanted to play us because we were a nobody. Slowly but surely we started getting invited to tournaments. I told our athletic director we’ll play anybody, anytime, anywhere. That’s what happened.”
Now the girls are headed for even a better season than last, when they were 20-7. Junior Natalie Zitko, who has drawn the No. 4 seed in the upcoming Division II sectional tournament, was 22-4 heading into Wednesday’s match at No. 1 singles. Sophomore Gracie Cornell is 19-5 at No. 2 and senior Hannah Novak is 22-3 at No. 3. Zitko and Novak have each won three tournaments and Cornell, who missed a couple, has one.
“We all take it a lot more serious; a lot of the girls were going to practice before it was even mandatory,” said Novak, who lives in Galion. “We have a lot more players and a real strong sense of team. We’ve all become dedicated. The more we win the more we want to win.”
Novak had never played tennis before enrolling at St. Peter’s as a ninth grader. But it didn’t take long for Fleming to find her.
“I was new to St. Pete’s but I knew a couple of girls on the team so I figured that joining the team might be a good way to meet people,” she said. “‘Doc’ Fleming (a retired dentist) asked me to play at freshman orientation and I signed up right there.
“He’s pretty persistent, and not just with that. He’ll show up at lunch and talk to us about matches and practices. I’ve never asked him what he’s doing there, but he always comes over to say hi.”
A part-time substitute teacher at the school, Fleming has taken advantage of that access to the student body to make his pitch for tennis. And he pays close attention to bloodlines.
Zitko’s brother, Phil, was a district qualifier for the Spartans.
“He was out there hitting a 100 serves a day (at Maple Lake Park, St. Peter’s home courts), and we’d be playing, and I asked him ‘Don’t you have a sister?’” Fleming said. “He said, ‘Yeah, she’s a freshman.’ ‘Does she play any sports?’ ‘No, she wants to be in some school plays.’”
The aspiring thespian sounded like an aspiring tennis player to Fleming. He just needed to bring out the athlete in her.
“I told Phil there’s a cold six-pack (of soda pop) in it for you if you bring her down to the courts,” Fleming said. “I never paid him, but the next day she’s there and by the end of her freshman year she was our No. 1 player.”
The No. 1 doubles team of senior Tara Baker and junior Natalie Guisinger is 15-8 with two titles. The No. 2 team of Brooke Baker — Tara’s twin sister — and junior Ava Cobb is 16-7.
“They’re all just so excited to play,” Fleming said. “They have so much spark, it rubs off on the coaches. When I had practice in the summer, there were always 13 or 14 there when they could be somewhere else. They did two-a-day (practices) and I wasn’t even around.
“They’re just really interested in being winners … and they are.”
With the success has come perks for the head coach. Sort of.
“I’m now the dean of coaches at the school (most tenure), so I told the athletic director (Frank Gordon) I should have my own parking space,” Fleming joked. “He said ‘We’ve got you on the north side of the school but you’ve got to be careful. There’s a dumpster right there and you can’t park there on Thursdays.’”