Croatan tennis coach Jim Sheehan stands next to a plaque honoring his contribution of starting the Swansboro tennis programs with his wife, Ellen, during his 33-year teaching career at Swansboro. (Zack Nally photo)

SWANSBORO — Croatan tennis coach Jim Sheehan got the surprise of a career Tuesday just before the start of his girls team’s season-opening match.

The longtime Swansboro teacher and coach was back on his old stomping grounds for a road match and unknown to him, a ceremony was held honoring his years of service to the high school with a court dedication.

“It’s a really nice thank you for something that took a lot of work,” Sheehan said. “I’m so appreciative. I never went into this for that. It’s a super honor.”

Shortly before the match, school administration, family, friends and former alumni taught by Sheehan gathered to pay tribute to the longtime coach. He was presented with a plaque proclaiming the high school’s tennis courts the “Jim Sheehan Tennis Courts,” with his one of his favorite phrases, “Game. Set. Match.” written underneath.

“I knew something was going on when I pulled up and saw people I haven’t seen in years,” Sheehan told the crowd. “Thank you all so much for being here.”

The 63-year-old has spent the last seven years at Croatan but spent the first 33 years of his teaching and coaching career at Swansboro. Sheehan coached the football team for 20 years, the baseball team for 16 and served as the school’s athletic director for 19. He helped start the boys and girls tennis programs from scratch in 1997, earning recognition as the U.S. Tennis Association High School Coach of the Year in 2004.

“It took a lot of work and a lot of effort,” Sheehan said, “but if you work hard enough and you have good people with you, a lot of time you can achieve a lot of stuff.

The longtime educator, who taught a range of classes, including physical education, biology, physical science and consumer math, gave credit to the coaches and administrators who helped him carve out a legacy at the school.

“I started here as a 23-year-old and had good mentors,” he said. “Coach (Ronnie) Ross and (Principal Joseph) Beasley, they kind of took me under their wing and molded me. It has been a great career.”

Sheehan graduated from the University of South Carolina and began teaching in Onslow County in July 1979. He still remembers the state of tennis in eastern North Carolina when he started the program with his wife, Ellen, in 1997.

“There was no tennis here when we started,” Sheehan said. “There was redneck tennis, so we had to teach etiquette and strokes and things like that. But the kids bought in and the parents bought in, and that’s what you need. My family put an awful lot into tennis here, to do it the right way to have a program the kids and the community would be proud of.”

Both Sheehan’s boys and girls teams thrived as fledgling programs. He coached the boys team since its inception and began coaching the girls team in 2000. The boys team won several conference titles, while the girls squad was a perennial conference championship team that also went 21-0 in the regular season in 2010.

For his efforts with the tennis team, Sheehan was inducted into the Onslow County Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year. He is the first tennis-associated coach or player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since its inception in 1999.

“I love doing for the

community here,” Sheehan said. “This was a great place to work. Mr. (Joseph) Beasley was a fabulous principal. We wouldn’t have these courts without him. He was a great man to work for. I still feel welcome here. I have a lot of friends here. My roots run really deep here.”

Sheehan retired from teaching in December 2011 and did not coach the boys team in 2012 due to state retirement policies requiring retired coaches to take a six-month absence from working for the school. He returned in the fall of 2012 to coach the girls team but was not retained the following spring.

“I put my heart and soul (into) Swansboro High School,” Sheehan said. “And then all of a sudden, I retired. That can kind of come as a jolt. I had the great fortune to be hired at Croatan to coach tennis. That was kind of a dream come true.”

Sheehan has found nothing but more success at Croatan since 2014, currently coaching a girls team looking to defend a 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference championship.

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