Lakeview Academy first-year girls tennis coach Steve Lewallen figured out quickly how to create a winning team.
The Lady Lions finished third in Region 8-A this season with a 9-5 record and played in the Class A state quarterfinals for the first time since 2005.
“We didn’t have a spectacular team, but we had a really good team,” Lewallen said. “No matter what happened, the team would always bond back together.”
Lakeview battled through a tough Region 8-A schedule with matches against Athens Academy, Jefferson and Athens Christian to make their fifth-straight state playoff appearance.
That’s where Lakeview Academy pulled off an upset of higher seeds Excel Christian in the first round and Region 7-A’s No. 1 seed Aquinas in the second round.
“Beating Aquinas was the highlight of our season,” Lewallen said. “I was very proud that we won that match, considering they were a very tough private school.”
Although the Lady Lions’ season came to an end in the state quarterfinals against then-undefeated Providence Christian, it was only the school’s second state quarterfinal appearance in school history.
“I’ve never had to assemble a team before, so this was new to me,” Lewallen said. “I had to learn how to pull the best players from a large group.”
Lewallen isn’t new to local tennis. Before taking the helm at Lakeview Academy, he was a personal tennis instructor and coached players from different schools in the area.
His coaching career at Lakeview began when Lions football coach Matthew Gruhn noticed his techniques and ability to improve younger tennis players. Gruhn hired Lewallen as an assistant football coach, despite not having been involved with football since 1982.
Lewallen took the job of girls tennis coach when the position opened.
“They knew I had been a tennis instructor before, so they made me coach for tennis, too,” Lewallen said.
Lewallen had talent to work with in his first season including Liz Presley and Times All-Area selection Niki Patel, along with the doubles teams of Molly Smith/Jackie Burleson and Paige Atherton/Nyari Chanakira.
But while Lewallen said he is proud of his entire team’s performance this past season, there is one player that he knows better than the others: his daughter, Nancy, who played at No. 1 singles and is also part of the Times All-Area team.
“It was great to have a father/daughter experience like this,” Lewallen said. “When I gave instructions, I had to make them plural to equally encompass everyone.”
But having his daughter on the team didn’t keep Lewallen from being the hard-nosed instructor he was known for before his varsity coaching days.
“I’ve always worked extremely hard with conditioning,” Lewallen said. “Before the season, we practiced every day.
“Once the season started, we began working on forming and bonding as a team and keeping each other inspired.”
Like all coaches, Lewallen has a philosophy to construct his team around, one he says was inspired by Duke University’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski: “Every good team has a leader and a heart.”
“I learned to coach conventionally and coach outside the box,” Lewallen said. “If you overwork things, they backfire.”
Lewallen hopes to be a permanent fixture in the Lakeview Academy tennis program. He is a sixth- and seventh-grade math teacher at the school and his two daughters attend the school as well.
I’ve watched this school grow and bring in some phenomenal coaches,” Lewallen said. “I love it here.”