ANNA – Something’s happening with Anna tennis, and it’s quite positive. Three years ago, the school had no fall tennis program and only a handful of players slated to return for the spring season. That’s when new head coach Vince Sharp arrived — and each year since it would correct to say, “This is the best tennis team the school ever had.”

This past campaign in particular saw great strides on the courts by the Lady Coyotes and Coyotes, among them:

-A first-time appearance in the third round of the team tennis playoffs

-A school-record six players qualifying for the regional tournament

-A second-straight girls district championship, a third-straight girls singles title and a second-straight girls doubles title

-Eight team tennis victories, double the program’s previous high, after no wins two years ago

Another sign of Anna’s growing prowess under Sharp: The team’s only losses over the last two years have been to state-ranked teams. “Unless they’re state-ranked, they’re not beating us right now,” Sharp said recently at Anna High School, adding that he expects his squad to be state-ranked itself when fall rolls around. “We’re bringing back too many kids not to be. It’s still going to be a ‘rebuild’ because we’re losing four of our girls and our girls program has been the strength.”

“It’s been cool to kind of see that growth,” Sharp said of Anna’s recent seasons. “At some point that’s going to plateau to a degree because we’re still kind of building it. You’re going to have down years. But so far it’s on the right track and similar to what happened at my previous school [Whitesboro]. It’s a very similar progression.”

Sharp said he tries to focus on the positive, on what his players are doing right. And, he added, “It’s easy to be successful when you have the support of your athletic director and your school board. There are a lot of athletic directors out there that don’t even have a thought about tennis.” Anna athletic director Jason Heath, he said, attends matches and often asks about the program’s needs.

A Licensed Professional Counselor, Sharp is also Director of Counseling for Anna ISD. “I’ve been doing intervention in schools for 12 years,” he said, “so the ability to connect with kids comes pretty naturally to me. But there’s something different about a therapeutic relationship with kids and coaching. There’s very little give-and-take doing therapy. It’s about them towards me — communicating to me and me guiding them through their life. In coaching there’s a lot more give-and-take. … My players have told me, I don’t know how many times, ‘We did this for you.’ And I’m like, ‘I just wanted it for you.’ But that’s how it works. They want it for me and I want it for them.”

Sharp, 39, and his wife Julie have two daughters: Morgan, a seventh-grader who’s been competing in USTA events for three years, and fifth-grader Ella who won last year’s USTA Anna Challenger tournament.

Surprise connection

Before taking the helm at Anna in 2015, Sharp was Class 3A Whitesboro’s head coach for three years. There, he and the Bearcats saw great success, including district championships and trips to the state tournament. “It’s kind of random that I even got into it,” Sharp said. “Our coach left and at a 3A school they don’t necessarily bring in somebody that’s [just] tennis. I guess word got around that I had played collegiately, so they asked me to take it on. At first, I thought I would just enjoy it because I love tennis. Then I realized I enjoyed it because I love the players. I didn’t realize the connection that I would have with the players.”

In a ‘rebuilding’ second year at Whitesboro, the girls narrowly missed winning a district championship and Sharp was named 3A Region II’s Coach of the Year. “Interestingly enough,” he said, “that’s probably one of the worst years I’ve had coaching. But I guess they noticed how quickly we were able to rebuild.”

Sharp said he was attracted to Anna by its solid growth and the chance to compete in both the fall and spring. “In 3A, you don’t have a fall season. And honestly, I kind of wanted to build something from the ground up. I wanted an opportunity. I took over for a pretty good coach [at Whitesboro]. He had a lot of good things in place.”

Sharp initially noted two needs at Anna: new courts and more players. “We’re a large 4A and it probably won’t be that long until we’re a 5A program. We had the City courts at Slater Creek — no windscreens, nets not even nailed down. If I’m building a program and I’m to maybe get 40 or 50 kids out here, it’s going to be tough on two courts.” Anna officials were already contemplating adding tennis courts to their Anna Sports Complex plans when Sharp was hired and he was able to participate in crafting the final design. “The school board was amazing,” Sharp said. “[The Anna Sports Complex] is awesome.”

As for players, Anna had four returning when Sharp assumed his duties — and the school was already signed up for its first-ever team tennis season. “I realized we were going to have to do some recruiting, and really fast,” he said, “or we weren’t going to be able to play. There were kids I recruited to play that started playing the first day of school and played their first district match three weeks later. That first year was rough.”

Sharp said he looked for competitive kids that weren’t already involved in other sports — and he also enlisted the help of his players to get the word out. “I just told them, ‘We need to have seven boys and seven girls to be able to participate. Bring some friends, anybody that is just interested. Bring them out here and we’ll see what we can do with them.” Now that the program is seeing success, he said, it tends to recruit itself.

“Coach Sharp is very knowledgeable about the game,” Heath said, “and can take almost any kid and make them successful in the game of tennis. If you watch one of his practices, it’s easy to see his passion and love for the sport. The growth and success the program has experienced during his time here is a testament of the hard work and dedication he puts into the sport. And our assistant, Coach Matt Moyer, was a great addition to our staff this year. He brings a lot to the program as well.”

Arkansas start

Sharp was the No. 1 singles player his junior and senior years at Conway High School in Conway, Ark., one of the state’s largest schools. As a senior, he reached the state tournament with seven of his teammates and went on to play two years at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla. There, his career was cut short by a complete ACL tear which, with complications, kept him off the court for several years.

Tennis, Sharp said, is becoming more and more popular in this area and with that, the competition is improving. He pointed to all three of District 11-4A’s team tennis members — Anna, Melissa and Princeton — making it past the first round of the playoffs last year. And district play should get tougher now, he said, with the addition of Argyle and Krum for the fall and Sanger and Gainesville in the spring. (Gone are Princeton and spring-only Bonham.)

Sharp noted that first-year Melissa head coach Brad Crawford has already improved that program - and that’s good for Anna too. “Coach Crawford and I have a great relationship. I’ve said from Day 1 when I met him, ‘It looks like we’re going to have a friendly rivalry.’ It’s Anna and Melissa and there’s competitiveness there and everything else, but if you really love the sport, you want to see it grow. He’s gotten them a long way since he’s been there too. Really, us getting better has made them better and now them getting better is making us get better. We’re kind of pushing each other in a way that you have no choice but to grow the program.”

Said Crawford recently, “Vince has been a big help, showing me the ropes this first year. He’s a good friend and a terrific coach.”

While Anna loses some talented players this year, Sharp said he’s confident that eighth-graders coming up and his returning veterans will step up.

A top Lady Coyote soon to graduate is Sydney Jones, a two-time regional-qualifier and district singles champ. Her mother, Tammy Jones, recently said she has not encountered a better coach than Sharp – in any sport. “Coach Sharp has taken a program that started with four players three years ago and convinced a group of kids who could barely hit a tennis ball that they would win district if they gave it their all. His enthusiasm and belief in our children is personified through their accomplishments. … It has been my pleasure to watch him laugh, sweat and cry alongside our children.”

Other accomplished Anna players approaching graduation include regional-qualifier Ally Fudge, district doubles champ Jewel Canty and Hannah Heath, who was lost to injury in the fall. All three, along with Jones, were First-Team All-District picks. On the boys’ side, solid Coyotes Christian Sanchez-Gonzalez and Anthony Jaramillo also depart.

Among returning Lady Coyotes this fall are Mary Beth Geren, whom Sharp said “will probably be the best player in the district;” Geren’s doubles partner Angel Dube, who with Geren could make a push to state; and Andrea Alvarez, who placed third in district last year. Among top boys coming back are district singles runner-up Rowdy Lairson and fellow regional-qualifier Jesus Garrido. Lairson, Sharp noted, will be the highest-rated returning player in the district and likely among the top two players in Region II.

“If we ever get to the point that we’re not being successful, I don’t know that I’ll enjoy coaching any less,” Sharp said. “I’m competitive and I want to win, don’t get me wrong. But winning is a bonus. … They’ve become family and they treat me like family,” he said of his team. “And the parents are amazing. They’re so appreciative. They want their kids to find a place where they fit in and when you offer that I’ve been shocked at the reaction that parents give me. It makes you want to keep doing it.”