Hurlburt, who recently led the Eagles’ boys basketball team to the Class AAAAAA state playoffs, is now coaching on a different court — a tennis court.
Hurlburt has experience playing tennis, and decades of experience coaching basketball, but this is the first time he has put the two together. He said it all came together last May when the administration approached him about coaching the boys tennis team.
The school’s trust in Hurlburt is paying off.
Etowah was an unbeaten 8-0 before it lost a 3-2 decision to archrival Woodstock on Thursday. It was a match that could have gone either way, with the Wolverines winning a pair of singles points in three sets.
Among those eight victories were three wins over county rivals — Cherokee, Creekview and River Ridge — one against previously unbeaten Lassiter and a pair against returning state champions from lower classifications in Blessed Trinity and Walker.
“Right now, we are just having fun playing tennis,” Hurlburt said. “I’ve had a blast the last three weeks. They are working hard and they are focused. Our goal is to be the best team in Cherokee County and to compete for the region championship. We think that we are on track to do both of those things.”
Former Etowah coach Bob DeCan had achieved a long string of success that included five straight region titles and a state runner-up finish in 2008.
But after DeCan stepped down at the end of the 2011 season, turmoil followed. Several talented players opted out of playing high school tennis in 2013, based on a rule the Georgia High School Association enacted a rule limiting a player’s practice time, and the result was rare losing season for the Eagles, who failed to qualify for the state playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade.
“We had a great program here for many, many years,” Hurlburt said. “(DeCan) resigned a couple of years ago and I didn’t follow them too much, but I know they didn’t make the playoffs last year.”
The GHSA’s rule on practice time was rescinded after the 2013 season, and Etowah regained some key players.
“There are a couple of kids playing for me now that didn’t play last year,” Hurlburt said. “One of our top players on the team didn’t even go out for the team last year.”
Hurlburt said that when DeCan stepped down, he approached the administration at Etowah about becoming the boys tennis coach, but they didn’t take him up on the offer. After the failed 2013 season, the administration approached him again, and Hurlburt accepted.
From here, the season will get a little more challenging for Etowah, which has matches against Walton, Milton, North Cobb and Marist in the next week. Still, Hurlburt likes where the Eagles are as a team.
“I feel like I know how to coach kids, and I know what it takes to make a good team and what it takes to win,’ Hurlburt said. “I have an assistant coach (Uli Wilms) and a community coach (Dick McSween) working with us that have played tennis at a very high level. So, I have the support and help of them and we just get to go out and play tennis with the kids every day. They are doing that right things on the court, and the right things off the court, and it’s working out.”
Hurlburt is determined to help Etowah earn its way back into the state playoffs.
No. 1 singles player Kevin Mendes, last year’s Cherokee Tribune Boys Tennis Player of the Year, has signed to play at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee. Behind him is senior Ryan Templet at No. 2 singles and freshman Cole Hellers at No. 3. Templet took last season off, but he seems to have picked up where he left off.
In doubles play, junior Jake Pollack and senior Taylor Barie have been a solid team, as have sophomore Austin Stark and junior J.T. Thompson. Not only that, but with just three seniors on Etowah’s roster, Hurlburt could be seeing the growth of another Eagle dynasty.
“We aren’t saying a lot. We are just going out and beating teams right now,” Hurlburt said. “Etowah has always had a solid tennis program and our goal is just to get it back to where it needs to be.”
Hurlburt admits that he is still learning about the other teams around the region, but, like any good coach, he’s doing his research.
“Just like I do with basketball, you have to respect your opponent,” he said. “You just have to go out and do the best you can.”
Aside from both sports being played on a court — albeit, entirely different ones — Hurlburt hasn’t found many similarities between tennis and basketball. The biggest aspect to overcome is that basketball is a true team sport, where tennis is an individual sport played in a team setting.
“In two of our matches, our No. 1 guy struggled a little bit, but then we had guys down at the bottom of the lineup who picked him up and picked the team up and allowed us to win,” Hurlburt said. “Then, (on Wednesday), our No. 1 got it going again. It’s like basketball, where you have your leading scorer or best player, but when he is injured or hurt or just off, someone else has to step up and lift the team. Some of that is the same. I try to teach work ethic and challenging each other, but really they are completely different games.”
There is at least one way coaching tennis has proven to be more challenging thus far.
“One is played outside, where it’s cold, and the other is played inside, where it’s warm,” Hurlburt said. “But I’ve really enjoyed it.”