By Justin Mitchell
When YMCA Tennis Program Director Robert Henshaw says that he’s excited about what is happening in the world of Oshkosh tennis, he is on to something. There is a lot happening in this community that signals a sort of resurgence of the sport, from facilities modernization to new programs and newfound successes.
The city has begun an aggressive modernization of their facilities, and expects to see much needed work done on the popular Menominee Park tennis courts in the next 18 months.
Familiar names in the local tennis world remain active, such as Sandy Van Lieshout (profiled on page 18) and Norm Bach. Meanwhile, local tennis favorites such as Paul Vanden Boogaard and Spencer Jones have worked to build up our local community.
New faces on the scene, such as the Menominee South Neighborhood Association, are working to support the tennis community, while the YMCA looks to further expand the role it can play in introducing, teaching and facilitating the game to our youth.
The city of Oshkosh currently offers many opportunities to engage in the sport of tennis, with seven city court locations, courts at Oshkosh West and North High school, great courts at UW Oshkosh and remote courts at Winnebago County Park. In addition, the YMCA runs the city’s only indoor tennis facility, featuring four indoor courts.
On pages 16 and 17 of this paper, we give scorecards to all of the public outdoor courts in the city, with many scoring very highly – a reflection of the resources that have been invested into our tennis infrastructure in the last five years. In fact, seven of the eleven courts received high scoring (above 20/30), with two (UW Oshkosh and Oshkosh North) receiving a score of excellent (above 25/30).
Three court settings are in need of attention (Menominee Park, South Park and Schumerth Courts), and all three currently have discussions taking place about maintenance. Only Schumerth is ranked as unplayable.
According to Oshkosh Park’s Director Ray Maurer, “I believe the city has done a pretty good job with maintaining a majority of its tennis courts in excellent condition with the recent reconstruction projects undertaken the past few years. I do believe we could do a better job addressing routine, annual maintenance of crack filling and other minor repairs to prolong the playability of the tennis courts.”
When Craig Lieder of the Oshkosh Area School District was asked about the Schumerth courts, he said, “Those courts were Bill Van Lieshout’s babies when he was teaching PE at Merrill MS. Bill used to take care of those courts by himself, would borrow supplies from whatever company was hired to resurface the North courts every 8-10 years and make it work.”
Lieder continued: “Since Bill’s passing (2011) the courts have been used for everything they aren’t intended for (Skateboarding, soccer, etc…) in addition to tennis. When Bill was alive they were only used for tennis but Bill always kept a close eye on them to make sure only tennis was played there. One of the net posts even came out of the asphalt leaving us with only 2 usable courts. The entire Schumerth field complex needs attention, and we are meeting this week to discuss this need.”
In total, of the 45 outdoor courts in town, only four are unplayable (Schumerth and one court at Menominee Park) while over half are in great condition.
The Oshkosh Rec Department and the YMCA have partnered to provide tennis lessons at the Menominee Park courts, while the United States Tennis Association (USTA) hosts a session of summer lessons at the Oshkosh North courts.
For indoor tennis, the YMCA boasts a great facility with four courts and a tennis pro. We were unable to connect with staff in time to complete a tour for the scorecard. However, these courts are widely utilized by students, YMCA members, high school and college students, and community groups.
According to Program Director Rob Henshaw, “Our adult leagues begin the day after Labor Day and we will hold numerous adult lessons including Co-ed Doubles drills, Cardio Tennis, as well as group lessons for beginners. Junior lesson schedules begin on September 8th. We have numerous lesson groups for juniors throughout the week. One of the most appealing aspects for juniors to become a Tennis Center member is that once they are signed up for a drill group, they are eligible to play in our Free Match Play program on Sunday nights.”
Henshaw continued: “We also offer lessons to youths 10 & under that require no membership fees and are extremely affordable. They are an excellent way to get young people involved in the sport in order for them to determine whether or not they enjoy tennis. Those classes cost roughly $58.00 for a 7-week session.”
The History of Oshkosh Tennis
Tennis in Wisconsin began in Oshkosh, or at least, the Wisconsin Tennis Association did. In a 1967 piece titled, “The History of Wisconsin Tennis Association,” H. G. Peterson wrote: “It was 1925 when a group of tennis enthusiasts in Oshkosh decided to reorganize the old Oshkosh Tennis Club. Four concrete tennis courts were available, however, they were not in very good condition and needed to be resurfaced.”
The piece, which was published in the Wisconsin Tennis Association 2002-03 Official Guide, continued:
“We were able to resurface the courts the first year and the second year we built the clubhouse. In the meantime, the membership was growing and a lot of tennis was being played by all members. It was felt that something should be done to invite our-of-town competition. Plans were formulated to schedule a men’s singles and doubles tournament some weekend (Saturday and Sunday.) A date was agreed upon and letters of invitation were mailed to several clubs and individuals only to learn that weekend tournaments had also been scheduled by other clubs for the same date. Obviously, our entry was very small, other isolated clubs experienced the same difficulty since Milwaukee was also holding a tournament.
This condition indicated the need for some sort of organization that would schedule all tournament so there would be no duplication of dates. After considerable correspondence, telephone calls, personal visits and informal meetings, it was decided to call a meeting of all interested people with a view of forming a state-wide organization. A meeting was called for February 26, 1927, to be held in Oshkosh…Temporary officers and committee chairmen were appointed and authorized to proceed with plans of organization, in an effort to get the association functioning as soon as possible.
The second meeting was held in Oshkosh on April 2, 1927… At the suggestion of the officials of the Western Lawn Tennis Association, the Wisconsin Association would be known as the “Wisconsin District, Western Lawn Tennis Association.”
The third meeting was held in Milwaukee on May 14, 1927 at which time the constitution and by-laws were discussed, modified and approved for final publication. At this meeting, the first award of a tournament was accomplished. The award of the State Closed Tournament to Oshkosh was unanimously approved.
The Wisconsin Tennis Association was now in full operation.
It didn’t take long for Oshkosh to demonstrate its talents. Jerry Clifford won back to back singles state high school championships for Oshkosh in 1935 and ‘36. The team won state in 1935 and ’37 (runner up in ’36), while the duo of Garner Ziebell and Bob Negendank won state doubles in ’37.
It would take 22 years until Oshkosh returned to the championship stage, under the leadership of the Bleckinger family. Charles Bleckinger was a three-time state champion from 1959-’61, a remarkable feat in any sport. In ’61, Oshkosh’s team was as dominant as they come, winning the singles, doubles (Tom Witasek, Ray Werner) and team championships. Charles’ younger brother Dan promptly continued the family reign when he claimed the state title in ’63 and ’65.
Oshkosh’s status as a tennis powerhouse quickly faded, and it wasn’t until 2002, over 35 years later, that a team would return to glory. The doubles team of Paul Vanden Boogaard (who is also the current North tennis coach) and Pete VanLieshout representing Oshkosh North High School won the doubles championship. While these two remain the last Oshkosh players to win the championship, the boys duo of Greg Janssen and Todd Fuller came close with second place finishes in 2005 and 2006.
Girls High School Tennis in Oshkosh burst onto the scene in 2009 with a state runner-up team performance. According to head coach Debbie Heinen, “The 2009 girls’ tennis team from Oshkosh West had an outstanding season. They finished regular season play with a remarkable record of 19-0. In the quarterfinals of the state tournament they eked out a 4-3 win over Green Bay Southwest and defeated Madison West in the semifinals with another 4-3 victory. In the finals, the Wildcats fell 6-1 to powerhouse Homestead, but they walked away with a state runner-up trophy in their first appearance in the state team tournament.”
Current Oshkosh North girls doubles team of Meg Hartzell and Alyssa Schafer has made it to state the last two years, and looks to be the returning favorite in the Fox Valley Association and another bid to state.
On the UW Oshkosh campus, team success has been elusive. However, the campus recently announced the hire of new head women’s and men’s coach Daniel Bickett. According to a campus press release, “Bickett helped the UW-Whitewater men and women qualify for six NCAA Division III postseason tournaments each. The women reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2010, 2012 and 2013 and the men in 2007 and 2011. Individually, Bickett helped eight UW-Whitewater players earn All-America recognition. In 2010, the ITA named Bickett its NCAA Division III Women’s Assistant Coach of the Year. He also received the same award on the men’s side in 2013.
YMCA Youth Tennis
This past summer, the YMCA ran numerous junior tournaments at both Oshkosh West and Oshkosh North High School. Program Director Henshaw said that they are looking to grow substantially in the future years. Watch for more information on these tournaments online at www.oshkoshymca.org/programs/tennis.
Bill Van Lieshout Classic
The premiere local tournament for skilled USTA members, the BVLC raises funds for court maintenance at Oshkosh North High School. Bill Van Lieshout served as coach of the boys and girls tennis teams at Oshkosh North for over 20 years, and dedicated many years to developing local youth tennis programming. In the early 2000s, demographic and economic changes threatened the future of tennis at Oshkosh North, and the courts were in serious need of repair. Bill diligently worked to secure funding to maintain the courts and the program, and was so successful that a brand-new eight court facility was able to be constructed at Oshkosh North.
Bill’s peers across the state named him High School Coach of the Year in Wisconsin in 2007. The Oshkosh North courts were opened in 2009 and received the prestigious “Facility of the Year” Award from the USTA. In 2010, a standing room-only crowd watched as the new facility was named the Bill Van Lieshout Tennis Center – the same year in which Bill received a shocking diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. In 2011, Bill passed away, and the Bill Van Lieshout Tennis Classic proudly honors his legacy with this annual tournament.
In recognition of the interest of more casual players still interested in supporting the cause, the Hacker’s Ball division was created. The Hacker’s Ball is prime for tennis players of middle and elder ages as well as high school and non-amazing college players. As a coed tourney, any combinations of family work. Basically, if you play tennis, you have no excuse not to join this fun community event.
For more information on the BVLC or the Hacker’s Ball Tournament, contact event director Spencer Jones at email@example.com or 612-741-6894.
Oshkosh Tennis Open at Menominee Park
New to Oshkosh in 2014 is the Oshkosh Tennis Open at Menominee Park, organized by a collaboration of the Menominee South Neighborhood Association, the Kiwanis Club, and the Oshkosh Scene. This doubles tournament is set for Saturday, October 4, 2014 at the Menominee Park tennis courts and is open to everyone. Advance entry fee is just $30.00 per team, with same day registration $40.00. All funds will be donated to the city of Oshkosh for maintenance of the Menominee Park tennis courts.
There are three divisions: Men’s Open, Women’s Open, and Coed 65+.
As of press time, the planning committee is finalizing the details and permit requirements with the city of Oshkosh.
Court Sponsors for the tournament are currently being sought for each of the five courts. Sponsorship is $75.00 and includes recognition in all promotions, media and the event guide.
More information, including registration, can be found online at http://new.scenenewspaper.com/oshkoshtennis ν
Justin Mitchell is editor of the Oshkosh Scene, and is still suffering from three tie-breaker debilitating losses with partner Kris Larson in the 2014 Hackers Ball Challenge. Enough of the wooden racquets, man!