MELISSA – It’s been almost a year since Melissa ISD lured Brad Crawford out of retirement — and East Texas — to lead its high school tennis program. Well, not so much lured — Melissa High School principal Kenneth Wooten, a friend and former colleague of Crawford’s, called to ask if he knew anyone for the job. After brief counsel with his wife Debi, Crawford called back and said something to the effect of, “Yes, I do. Me!”

In his office at Melissa High last week, with a fall and spring season under his belt again, Crawford discussed his dive back into coaching. “I’ve questioned my sanity a time or two,” he joked, “but I haven’t questioned my decision to come to here.”

Now 59, Crawford said while age has caused him to adjust his coaching style a bit, he’s still got plenty going for him. “There are days when it’s long. We just finished three straight weeks of junior high tournaments on Saturdays … so I’m dragging a little right now. The thing I’ve noticed more than anything is I’ve lost a step. If I try to do too much I’ll pay for it the next day. … But the thing that’s made it so much better is all the support that’s here: parental support, administrative support, school board support. And the kids are terrific.”

The travel can be long too, Crawford said, but he’s found himself enjoying that as well. “The thing I love is I’m not traveling just for traveling’s sake. I’m traveling with the kids. And our relationships have just been excellent this year.”

Even though he’s not participating in drills as much and jumping around at practice, Crawford still clearly loves the game and his desire to teach kids remains strong. Those qualities are starting to pay dividends for Melissa tennis. Last fall’s team tennis squad, though 0-4 in district play, rose up and won a bi-district playoff match with Crandall. And in non-district play, Melissa claimed a tough road win at Argyle. In the spring, the Cardinals won a district boys doubles title and narrowly missed sending three more players to regionals.

Observers of Melissa tennis have noticed these positive steps and more in the still-young program. MHS girls athletic director Claude Webb is certainly one of them. “Hiring Brad Crawford to take over our tennis program was like hitting a home run,” he said. “Not only does he have over 25 years of coaching experience and many successes as a coach, he brings a passion for tennis and a work ethic that is second to none. On top of that, he’s an excellent classroom teacher. It may take him a few years, but Brad will turn Melissa into one of the top tennis programs in Texas.”

Anna head tennis coach Vince Sharp, who has sparked the Coyotes’ program of late, has noticed Crawford’s impact as well. “I think he has just kind of energized the [Melissa] program,” he said. “Kids are excited to play. He is a good man and an excellent coach. He has them moving in the right direction, for sure.”

Crawford had been retired for three years when he answered Melissa’s call. Most recently, he’d been head tennis coach at Van High School for 19 years, where he’d built strong bonds and friendships. While he still misses those at times, Crawford said he’s committed to staying the course at Melissa for another five or six years — or “as long as they’ll have me.

“I had a parent meeting last night to talk about the summer and I had 25 parents here — at a 6 o’clock meeting time on a Tuesday night two weeks before the end of school. I was going to be happy with 10 and I figured if I had 15 that would be terrific. … That’s the kind of community support and parental support that’s here. They want their kids to do well, they want them involved in a quality program. That’s just been super-inspiring for me,” he said.

During the past year, Debi has remained in East Texas where she was concluding, among other things, her commitments as president of the Hawkins, Texas, Chamber of Commerce. Now she’ll be joining Crawford in Melissa, having been hired as MISD’s Director of HIRE Education where she’ll administer the district’s Career and Technology program.

“That’s kind of been a saving grace for us this year,” Crawford said of her move. “We’ve been married 33 years, and we’ve never lived apart. It hasn’t been an easy year, but it hasn’t been a horrible year because she, being retired, was able to come up here sometimes during the middle of the week. And if she wasn’t able to come up here I went home.

“She’s enjoyed seeing me back enjoying this,” he added. “She’s super-supportive, and I’m just tickled.”

Crawford said coaching hasn’t changed much in the time he was away from it. “I think coaching at this level is a whole lot about relationship-building. If you can motivate the kids because they know you care about them … they’re going to excel to the best of their ability most of the time.

“The thing I was most proud of [last year] was the way we bonded together during team tennis season in the fall. Our first match, we didn’t play all that well, but then the next three matches that we played - two against Anna and one against Princeton — we were right there. We were so close, but lost all three of them. Then we went into the first-round of the playoffs and won the bi-district match.”

John Lewis and Justin Mercer were the Cards’ doubles champs in the spring. At regionals, Mercer and Lewis easily won their first-round match then battled Center in the quarterfinals. That marathon struggle lasted 3 hours and 45 minutes, with Center pulling it out after dropping the first set, 12-10, in a tiebreaker. “It was just a dogfight the whole way,” Crawford said.

Melissa also wound up with a fine crew of All-District picks in the fall including singles picks Dawson Mercer, Zach Butterfield, Justin Mercer, Brandon Shipes and Jake Fowler, and doubles partners Mercer/Lewis, Shipes/Fowler and Bryan Williams/Butterfield.

Butterfield placed third in district singles and doubles partners Lilly Hubbard and Aubrey Grantham also took third in district, narrowly missing regionals.

Crawford loses just three seniors — Justin Mercer, Hubbard and Grantham — and he’s excited about the players coming back. “The majority of our team was freshmen and sophomores, so I’ve got those kids for another two or three years,” he said. Also causing excitement is the new tennis facility in Melissa’s not-too-distant future. While some plans are still being finalized, Crawford said, ground-breaking could possibly take place this summer. “It’s going to be top-notch. All you’ve got to do is go out and look at those softball and baseball fields at [Melissa’s new] sports complex. Think about a tennis center that’s going to be commensurate with that.”

The new facility will do wonders for Melissa tennis, Crawford noted. “No. 1, it shows the community how much support is here for the program. No. 2, it’s going to be huge because right now we don’t ever play a home match because you can’t host a home match with fewer than six courts. When we play a home match we play it in Anna. That’s fine and Vince has been great about letting us use his courts … but I’m hoping [this fall] is going to be the last time we’re going to have to do it.”

So all told, some aches and all, Crawford appears to have settled nicely into his new environs – and that’s a good thing for Melissa tennis. “With the building of our new facility,” he said, “and with 35-40 junior high kids active in our program, the future is bright. Our goal is to be competitive at the regional and state 4A level and be prepared to grow as our community grows. Melissa has a tradition of winning and I look for nothing less in our tennis program.”