The Eagles failed to qualify for the Class AAAAAA state playoffs, and the coach decided to step down after the season.
That’s when Don Hurlburt stepped up.
The school’s longtime boys basketball coach had been interested in adding tennis to his coaching duties a few years ago. He was passed over for the position at the time, but when the administration came calling again, he answered.
The season that followed for Hurlburt and the Eagles was nothing short of impressive.
Etowah opened the season with nine straight wins and beat every other team in the county. After earning the second seed out of Region 5AAAAAA, the Eagles advanced to the second round of the state playoffs before falling to Alpharetta. Along the way the Eagles also beat two of eventual state semifinalists, Lassiter and Hillgrove.
For helping Etowah return to its lofty goals, Hurlburt is the 2014 Cherokee Tribune Boys Tennis Coach of the Year.
Hurlburt said it was an honor to be recognized, but he’s still getting over the end of the season.
“It’s hard to be satisfied when you lose,” he said. “I felt like we maximized our opportunities and, as a coach, if you can get kids to maximize their ability and go as far as that, then I’m OK with that.”
Even in Etowah’s final match of the season, a 3-1 loss to Alpharetta, Hurlburt said it could have easily ended differently.
“If we had tied up that last set, and it had gone on to be decided by line 3 singles, I would have felt pretty good,” Hurlburt said. “I don’t like losing, and I’m sure they don’t like losing, but Alpharetta isn’t chopped liver.”
Hurlburt said his team was one or two players away from rising to the next level and playing for a state title.
Next year, he might have those players.
Etowah will lose Kevin Mendes and Ryan Templet to graduation, but other key players, like Cole Heller and Jake Pollack, will return. Etowah also expects to add one of the top players in the state who lives in the school’s attendance zone but previously attended a private school.
“The team is in good shape,” Hurlburt said. “The goal next year will be to build on this and try to do a little bit better. I think this group did a good job of maximizing their ability.”
Reaching the state playoffs is often seen as a benchmark. Getting back to there after missing it for the first time in 14 years, Hurlburt wants the Eagles to stay there.
Hurlburt will be back as tennis coach for at least another season. Though he said the months when basketball and tennis overlapped were difficult to sort out, now that he’s done it once, it should be easier in the future.
“It was rough this year managing, when tennis came on the tail of basketball and not knowing how it would go,” Hurlburt said. “Now I know more and will manage it better. I enjoyed tennis. We had a great group of talented kids, and we have great players coming back. I’m looking forward to it.”