When the Ada High School boys tennis team won the Class 4A State Tournament last weekend, it marked the 22nd overall state championship for the storied AHS tennis program.
Ada boys teams have 13 first-place trophies, while the Lady Cougars are wearing nine state crowns.
It’s a tradition at Ada that started when Ada captured its first boys state title in 1964. The first girls championship followed in 1967.
Coach Earl Bingamon began winning state titles, and Bill Nelson and Skip Griese have continued to build an Ada tennis empire.
Terry Swopes has been Griese’s right-hand man since becoming his assistant in the spring of 2006. Swopes is the husband of Sunny Nelson, one of Bill Nelson’s three daughters who played tennis during their prep careers.
One amazing fact is that a Nelson and/or a Swopes has been a part of 16 of Ada’s 22 state titles.
• Bill Nelson won girls state championships in 1976, 1977 and 1981 and boys state crowns in 1980, 1981 and 1983.
• Sunny Nelson was part of the 1996 girls state title team.
• Summer Nelson helped Ada win a title in 1998.
• Since arriving at Ada, Swopes has helped Griese capture eight state championships. Of course, Landon Swopes — the son of Sunny and Terry — has now been a part of Ada’s last two boys state championships.
Nelson has watched Ada High tennis closely long after he left the Ada school system years ago and has followed the Cougars and Lady Cougars around since his retirement. Who better than him to ask exactly what makes Ada’s tennis program so successful?
A big part of it, according to Nelson, is the great tag team Griese and Swopes make.
“It’s a combination of factors. No. 1, Ada — for such a small school — is really blessed to have two really good tennis coaches. That doesn’t happen in schools our size. Very few of them have one, and none of them have two,” he said. “Coach Swopes was a successful high school coach when he got here. He was Teacher of the Year when we stole him from McAlester.”
Nelson said the Ada duo has great chemistry.
“(Swopes) and Skip have a great partnership. They feed off each other. They fill each other’s gaps. And they’re still learning, and that’s what’s fun,” he said.
Nelson also said the Cougars are where they belong — in Class 4A.
“The drop to 4A was really helpful to them. About the time they dropped to 4A, most of the private schools went to 5A. In the past, 4A had been death valley in tennis, and now 5A is death valley. Ada is now getting to compete against schools truly their size,” he explained.
Hard work and great expectations are also obvious factors.
“Coach Griese has created this marvelous machine — this system where they work at it hard. They’re out there 12 months a year,” Nelson said. “He’s created an expectation of excellence now, and that’s a hard thing to do.”
Understanding and cooperative parents are also a plus.
“Skip thanks the parents every year because the parents have to allow their kids to be coached and worked. Ada parents have bought into what’s going on. They know their kids are going to be out here more hours than almost anyone else,” Nelson said.
Still, even with all those positive factors and influences, state championships don’t grow on trees. Griese and his teams just make it look easy at times.
“You forget how hard they are to win. Many years ago as the high school principal, I ran across a report in some OSSAA materials that said there were 726 school districts in the state and only 79 had won a state championship in anything,” Nelson recalled.
“That was at a time at Ada High School that if we didn’t win a championship in a year, everybody went into mourning. They thought we had to shut down the whole sports program,” he continued. “I know how hard it is from the nine years I coached. We worked really hard to have the success we had. I was exhausted after nine years. I don’t know how Skip does it after 30-something.”
Sometimes, you simply have to have some luck on your side, too, when landing a state title.
“There’s always a little bit of luck involved to win a state championship. People have to stay healthy. When they get there, they have to play,” Nelson said.
Nelson said Griese and Swopes do a great job of preparing Ada players all season for what lies ahead at the state tournament.
“What coach Griese and coach Swopes have been able to do is get their kids to produce their best tennis at the best time. (This year), they absolutely peaked when they had to peak,” he said.
Nelson said Griese doesn’t shy away from rugged competition during the regular season.
“Coach Griese plays a brutal schedule, and that’s a longtime Ada tradition. He schedules so tough that the state tournament is one of the easiest tournaments they’ll play all year,” he said. “I ran a tournament for nine years at Ada and had some really good tennis teams and gave out three trophies for first place second place and third place and none of my teams ever won a trophy from any of those tournaments.”
Nelson said he’s enjoyed following Ada’s tennis teams as a huge supporter, especially since his retirement.
“It’s been great fun to watch. I have a lot of great appreciation and great admiration for coach Griese and coach Swopes,” he said.