TURNER, Ore. — As Cascade High’s girls tennis team traveled east on Highway 22 to play a match in Central Oregon, head coach Ron Suelzle pointed to Stayton’s Lone Oak Cemetery.
That’s where his daughter, Esther Ybarra, is buried.
Many of the players knew Esther. A Cascade graduate, district tennis champion and Corban University student, she died from cancer last year at age 21.
No one would have blamed Suelzle if he hadn’t coached this year.
The death of the eldest of Suelzle’s seven children devastated the family and reverberated throughout the Turner community.
But Suelzle came back for his 16th season as head coach of Cascade High School’s girls tennis team and guided the program to its finest season.
The Cougars won the district team championship and placed second in the OSAA Class 4A/3A/2A/1A state tournament. The doubles team of seniors Tori Lewis and JaJa Osuna Sola won the district doubles championship and placed second at state.
“I feel like (Esther’s death) just pushed his drive,” Osuna Sola said of her coach. “I feel like that just made him more motivated and eager to get out there and make his girls the best.”
“He’ll bring her up and it’s more of an inspirational point, instead of a sad point.”
While others wondered if Suelzle would return as coach, he never considered quitting.
Suelzle admits he had hard stretches as a teacher at Cascade this school year. There were times in class he would talk about his daughter and start crying.
“I think when you have a tragedy, kids help you through it,” said Cascade Superintendent Darin Drill. “There were a couple tough moments. At the end of the day, (Suelzle) is a very positive person.”
In Esther’s final days at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, she encouraged everyone to embrace life.
“Even though Esther’s gone and we miss her beyond description, she didn’t want anyone to stop living because she was suffering and she was going to die,” Ron Suelzle said.
“She was so hopeful and so full of life. I know she never bemoaned her fate.”
Lewis is a cousin to the Suelzle family and always looked up to Esther.
She developed into an outstanding volleyball player — Lewis was twice the Oregon West Conference player of the year — but after her cousin’s death, she dedicated herself to get the most from her athletic ability.
Lewis and Osuna Sola took tennis lessons at Salem Tennis & Swim Club in the off-season and made huge improvements in their mental and physical games while working with pro Tim Layman.
The memory of Esther motivated them to reach new heights in tennis, but they never knew they could go as far as the state championship match.
“It is weird, just like her not being here, because she’s so involved in everything,” Lewis said. “It just helped me want to be Esther in her personality and her determination in sports and everything.”
Esther graduated from Cascade in 2014 and started college at Corban in Salem, but was diagnosed with cancer — alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma — that fall.
She went into remission in 2015 and married Jacob Ybarra in October of 2016. But the cancer came back, sending her into numerous treatment regimens.
But even on days when Ron Suelzle would travel with his daughter for treatments in Portland and elsewhere, he maintained his commitment to the tennis program at Cascade.
The Cougars won district team championships in 2015 and 2017.
“It just shows you the dedication that you put into it and the heart that you put into sports is what matters,” Osuna Sola said. “Practices count, but it’s just the chemistry and work, that’s what matters most.”
When son Ben Suelzle reached the state boys tennis tournament in singles this season, it was the eighth year in a row a Suelzle child had played in the state tournament — following Esther, Elizabeth and Daniel before him.
Esther — a three-sport athlete at Cascade — played in the state tennis tournament from 2011 through 2014. In her senior year, she played in a doubles team with her sister, Elizabeth, and won the district doubles championship. Today, Elizabeth helps her dad coach the team.
The district doubles championship for Lewis and Osuna Sola was the first individual district championship for a Cascade player since Esther and Elizabeth’s 2014 district title.
“She would be proud of her little brother making it to state and she would be proud of Elizabeth in her coaching and she would be proud of Tori, seeing her little cousin winning a district championship,” said Ron Suelzle, who has guided Cascade to six district championships.
“One of the first things we said was we wish Esther was here to enjoy this with Tori. Esther would be proud of Tori.”
When she was ill, Esther’s presence was felt on Cascade’s sports programs.
Whether she had a relative playing or not, or if she was at a difficult point in her treatment, Esther came to games constantly and encouraged the athletes.
Players like Erica Mitchell, Jenica Wiebenga and Gio Hernandez — all of whom played at the state tournament — knew of her presence.
Her memory still permeates the program.
“As a coach and as a teacher, you find success by making your students or your athletes successful,” Ron Suelzle said. “I’m only successful if they’re successful.
“This is something that I will look back on 20 years from now when I’m retired and cherish these moments.”