MOREHEAD CITY — Croatan High School tennis coach Jim Sheehan knows a thing or two about sustaining a top-notch program.
He came to the school after an illustrious coaching career at Swansboro, but Croatan was an entirely different school in an entirely different classification when he arrived in 2014-2015.
That didn’t matter, apparently. The 64-year-old has posted winning seasons for both the boys and girls tennis programs every year but one (girls, 2014) since showing up. His girls program won a league title in 2018 and went 17-0 in the regular season in 2019, but his boys team has been astronomically successful.
In fact, he hasn’t lost a conference match in boys tennis since he came to Croatan. The program has won five straight league titles and was barreling toward a sixth when the COVID-19 shutdowns were implemented. The Cougar boys have gone 6-0 in league play every year, with the streak reaching 30 wins leading into this season.
“That streak is kind of crazy,” Sheehan said. “It sounds like a lie when you say it out loud. We’ve been lucky and we’ve had some good tennis players, but we’ve also had some really good kids who bought in and whose parents bought in. I put my heart and soul in these programs, and I want them to do the same thing. We’re all in, working hard and driving as hard as we can. That’s the girls team as well as the boys team.”
The 2020 boys team, anchored by four seniors who have been with the program for four years, was 5-0 when the spring sports season was tentatively postponed until May 18.
“They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do, and they know they have gotten significantly better as tennis players,” Sheehan said. “They have done all the hard work and put in the extra time to have a great senior year. We got off to a great start, but then it all came to a screeching halt.”
The Cougars didn’t get a chance to start their 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference, preserving their perfect 30-0 league record but not giving them a chance to extend it either. If spring sports does resume as planned, it will be a very short season. Regardless of whether or not potential matches would count toward the conference streak or a state championship, Sheehan just wants to get back out on the court.
“None of the powers that be have asked, but if we do come back and we’re able to play, I think a viable solution would be to eliminate the state championship, at least for tennis,” Sheehan said. “Our kids just want to play some more matches, even if they’re only local matches. Maybe we could play a few conference matches, but I’d be OK even if we just played Croatan and West. They just want to play.”
Sheehan will see five total seniors graduate after this season, but he’ll also bring back No. 1 netter Noah Shaul, No. 5 Eli Simonette and No. 6 Adam Dweikat, all of whom were undefeated when the season was postponed. Talent has come and gone during Sheehan’s time, but he’ll be the first to point out that he has been blessed with exceptional athletes.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of really good athletes on my teams, guys who were really soccer players or a football guy who developed as tennis players,” he said. “I remember Zac Tracy, who was a great running back and a great goalie, but his favorite sport was tennis. When you hear things like that, it makes you think you’re doing something right.”
Tracy was a part of Sheehan’s first group of players at Croatan, an “in” that helped Sheehan adjust to the new school seamlessly.
“When I got there, Croatan actually had some players who had taken their lessons with me,” Sheehan said. “Normally, there’s a period of ‘feeling everyone out’ when you start with a new team, but these guys already knew me. From that time on, we just set a standard of how things were going to work – practice hard, compete hard, do all the little things and then see what happens. I’ve stuck to that, stressing competing over winning, with all my teams.”
Some things haven’t changed over the years, such as the fact that nine of the 15 players on Sheehan’s inaugural 2015 boys team were soccer players, including No. 2 Tracy, No. 3 Cole Dozier, No. 4 Mitchell Wright and No. 6 Ben Simonette. This season has the same split, with nine of the 15 having played for the varsity booters team in the fall, including four of the six singles starters.
“When we (my wife Ellen and I) started the program at Swansboro, we went to the soccer team first,” Sheehan said. “A lot of them were in good shape, had good footwork and they didn’t play baseball in the spring. A lot of them were reticent, but they learned the game and loved it.”
Some of those older players were present in an August ceremony in which Swansboro dedicated its courts to the longtime coach. School administration, family, friends and former alumnus taught by Sheehan gathered as he was presented with a plaque proclaiming the high school's tennis courts the “Jim Sheehan Tennis Courts,” with one of his favorite phrases, “Game. Set. Match.” written underneath.
Sheehan spent 33 years at Swansboro, coaching the football team for 20 years, the baseball team for 16 and serving 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.
“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.”
Both Sheehan's boys and girls teams thrived as fledgling programs. He coached the Pirate 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 last year. He is the first and only tennis-associated coach or player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since its inception in 1999.