Growing up in Allegan, Jen Conrad signed up for tennis lessons in the community’s summer program after 4th grade “because I had a number of friends who played. The program was run by Gary Ellis (2007 Hall of Fame) and Walt Kaechele (1990 Assistant Coach of the Year). “It was Gary and Walt’s sense of humor and play that hooked me on the sport, and I just kept coming back every summer for more,” she adds.
Nevertheless, Jen didn’t make the Allegan varsity her freshman year, 1987. “It was disappointing but expected,” she says. “I just wasn’t extremely athletic and all the other girls who made it had been playing for much longer than I had. So I dedicated myself to improving. My parents agreed to take me to Kalamazoo once a week during the winter to group lessons (a bit of expense for my family at the time), and I really improved my serve and shot placement. That fall, I made the varsity team as a 4 singles player. Then I just kept climbing up the ladder until I was at 2 singles my senior year – and better than all the girls who beat me to varsity my freshman year – Redemption!).”
Jen won the conference flight championships at 2 and 3 singles and the regional title at 3 singles. “My senior year was definitely my best year even though I didn’t win regionals. I played with a nasty cold. Gary claimed I won ‘the most Kleenexes used in a match’ award that day.”
But at 2 singles, Jen made it to the semifinals of the state tournament. According to team records, she was the only 2S player in history to make it that far into the tournament, that is until Landria Christman made it to the finals in 2009.
During her first year of teaching, Gary asked Jen to help coach middle school tennis. The next year, girls varsity coach Jen Aldrich – herself once a MHSTeCA Assistant Coach of the Year – asked Conrad to be her assistant for the girls JV program in 2000. There is little doubt that Aldrich knew what she was getting – in high school she was 1 singles for Allegan all three years that Conrad played on the varsity. “I’ve stuck with her ever since, even after I found out my position would no longer be a paid position,” she says.
“She did an excellent job meeting each player’s ability with fun and creative drills and games,” says Aldrich. “Jen did an outstanding job helping to assist teams of sometimes 30+ girls.”
Jen moved up to assist the girls varsity in 2005, helping the teams to seven consecutive conference titles, two regional titles, and seven consecutive trips to the final tournament. “She is at every practice and game,” says Aldrich.
“She spends countless hours updating player records, completing our end of the year video for the banquet and helping to put the end of the year packet together,” adds Aldrich. This is undoubtedly a superb package. Jen spends her days as an English Language Arts and photojournalism teacher, as well as Allegan High School’s yearbook advisor. The packet is a stats packet that involves lots of number crunching, a tradition that Jen has continued. The current version was 72 pages in length and contains everything (and more) that you would want to know about Allegan girls tennis, past and present.
Jen is also a teacher consultant for the Third Coast Writing Project and the National Writing Project. “I was a member of the National Writing Project’s Rural Sites Network Leadership Team from 2006-2011,” she says, “and was in charge of a national conference during the girls’ first spring season .. and the conference took place during one our team’s first indoor tournaments. That was interesting.”
“Jen is the ideal assistant coach,” says Gary, who is also the school’s athletic director. “She is knowledgeable, connects well with her players, knows her players well so that she can push the right buttons, is very competitive, has a good perspective of the role of high school athletics and doesn’t mind doing the paperwork and record-keeping that most coaches don’t like to do.”
Jen and Jen complement each other very well which is a great benefit to the players,” concludes Gary. “Allegan is fortunate to have her involved in the program. She is a difference maker.”
Nick Martin started playing tennis in the sixth grade in hometown Portland. “I picked up a racket for the first time in Jim Niebling’s summer program and got hooked,” he says. “I played in the summer program and on the high school team until I graduated.”
Nick played for Jim and the Raiders from 1995-1998. “I was a four-year varsity letter winner,” he says. “I played 2nd doubles all four years. At the time I graduated, I held the school record for most matches played. The record no longer stands because they play almost twice as many matches in a season now than they did when I played. I was on the first Portland team to qualify for the state tournament and also on the first Portland team to win a regional title. I was not a great athlete but I could hold my own.”
At the time of Nick’s college graduation with a degree in physical education and health, Jim needed an assistant “who knew he was going to be around for a long time. We talked about my situation and after a brief conversation, we decided to try it. After seven seasons, I am still in Portland,” Nick concludes.
“When Nick took over our JV team, they routinely had abysmal records season after season,” says Jim. “Records like 1-10 were common. His first season looked to be more of the same. But year after year, he steadily improved the program to a point now when they have only lost three matches in the past two seasons combined. This is due to Nick’s dedication to the program and his willingness to do anything and everything he thinks necessary to move it forward.”
Besides his duties as the JV coach, Nick assists Jim at varsity events and runs most of the school’s tournaments (“And we run A LOT of tournaments,” says Jim). Although a paid assistant in the boys season, “he volunteers hundreds of hours of his time to help coach the girls JV team in the spring,” says Jim. “Without any prospect of being paid, he willingly spends every practice during the spring on the court helping and learning more about the art of coaching tennis.”
“I figured you were going to need this done eventually, so I took care of it,” Nick has often said to Jim. This ranges from requests by the athletic office for player status to making sure there are enough balls and scoreboards at matches to clearing the courts after a rain storm. “No task is too menial for Nick,” says Jim. “He takes care of it, and he takes care of it without anyone having to ask him to do so.”
Nick is a Para Pro at Portland High School. He is also a volunteer firefighter/EMT for the Portland Fire Department. “We are all volunteers so one second I could be in the classroom or on the tennis court and the next second I could be in a house fire,” he says.
More to the point, many of Nick’s kids go on to fame as varsity players for Portland. “We don’t get a lot of club players so a lot of the JV players will go on and have success at the varsity level,” he says. “This year alone 10 out of 12 players on the varsity at one time were on the JV team.”
Indeed, one of Nick’s doubles teams was moved up to varsity as a fill-in at a tournament. They won at fourth doubles, went on the win another at 3rd doubles, and stayed on the varsity team to reach the semifinals at the state tournament. “Nick has proven himself more than indispensable for our program,” concludes Jim. “He is a terrific asset.”
As a high school player for Portland, Nick was named Most Dedicated his freshman year. It is a distinction he has lived up to ever since.
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