Johnson High’s boys tennis coach Marsha Wilkes has been, in her seven years at the helm of the boys program, focused on one thing: making sure her players don’t just play the game, but love the game.
“I like everything about the sport,” Wilkes said. “It’s a good sport, it’s good exercise, it’s a good social sport in that you develop good friendships. It’s a gentlemen’s and ladies’ game.”
Wilkes, who is retiring this year after 32 years of teaching AP calculus, pre-calculus, pre-algebra and “a little bit of everything in the math department,” led the boys tennis team to a Region 7-AAA championship and a 16-5 overall record, marks that made her the Times 2008 Boys Tennis Coach of the Year.
The Knights, who were ranked No. 2 in the Class AAA for the majority of the season, ended the year with a first-round loss to Region 5-AAA’s Dunwoody in the state tournament. Despite the loss, Johnson was ranked No. 8 in the Class AAA in the final coaches poll of the year.
“I attribute this season to the work of the guys,” Wilkes said. “Most came out their sophomore year and took it upon themselves over the last few years to hit year round.
“I’ve had guys on past teams that like to play tennis, but didn’t love it like this group did.”
One of those players that grew to love the sport was senior Seth Hester, the Times Boys Player of the Year.
According to Hester, it was Wilkes who played an integral role in his success on the tennis court.
“I wouldn’t be the player I am today if it weren’t for Mrs. Wilkes,” Hester said. “She made me love the sport and want to play every chance I could.”
That love for the sport, instilled by Wilkes, on top of the success of the 2008 Johnson boys tennis team, has filtered down to the younger boys in the program.
“I had a full house at the tennis banquet this year,” Wilkes said. “I had eight junior varsity players this year (as opposed to four last year) and I think they have just fallen in love with the game.
“They promised me they would work over the summer to continue what we started.”
Wilkes began coaching tennis at Johnson for the girls program while her daughter, Hayli Wilkes WIlliams, was playing for the girls team.
She took over the boys program in 2001.
“It’s odd for women to coach boys, I know that,” Wilkes said. “The difference between the two (boys and girls) is that the boys soak up everything you tell them and want to stick around and hit a little after practice.
“While coaching girls, when I said practice was over I would turn around and the girls would be gone.”
“Mama Wilkes,” as she is referred to by her team, didn’t play tennis until she was a student at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.
“I took tennis as a class,” Wilkes said. “There were no women’s sports when I was coming up in high school, well, there was basketball but I didn’t play that.”
Wilkes who since the time she took the tennis class at age 19 has been involved in the sport, currently plays in a Tuesday night league, in ALTA and the USTA.
Her daughter is her doubles partner.
For Wilkes, teaching players to love and respect the game has been more instrumental in her success as a coach than constantly harping on fundamentals and proper play.
“I told the guys everytime we went on the court to have fun,” Wilkes said. “Because if you aren’t having fun doing it then you shouldn’t be doing it at all.”