By Matt Hill
During the eight and a half years I lived in Mountain City, it wasn’t easy being a tennis fan.
Tennis was a sport that really wasn’t emphasized in the community, and the facilities were not very good.
Other sports dominated the headlines and were pushed more in the town.
However, over the last decade I have been able to enjoy covering a phenomenal tennis program that has produced four standout boys.
Back in the 80s and ’90s, Johnson County had a powerhouse tennis program under the direction of coach Steve Arnold, and he was able to produce many college players, even Division I players.
When I look back at all the things the Johnson County program has accomplished, I think it’s almost nothing short of amazing.
From Dottie Sue Phipps and Raina Sluder all the way to the Tugman boys, what these people have accomplished wouldn’t have happened without support from coaches and dedicated parents who only wanted the best for their children.
I tell people all the time that they are great opportunities for scholarships in tennis and other non-revenue sports. Over the last 10 years, most of the scholarships in Johnson County have come from non-revenue sports, and in particular, tennis.
Phipps, a former JCHS tennis Coach herself and current middle school volleyball coach in Johnson County, played at Emory & Henry. Sluder took her talent to Middle Tennessee State, and is now a doctor in Mountain City.
The Johnson County teams under Arnold’s direction were very good, but had a disadvantage in the fact tennis was lumped together with the Class AAA schools at the time in one big classification.
It’s hard to imagine how far players like Phipps, Sluder and Sam Adams Jr. would have gone if things were on an even playing field like they are now.
Arnold is probably the best non-country club coach that this area has ever seen. Currently a successful golf coach at JCHS, he could get the most out of kids.
He has told me time and time again that other schools had better athletes, but he had better kids.
Arnold resigned around 2000 to become middle school athletic director and focus on golf, and that’s about the time a kid named Adam Cornett entered high school.
Cornett really put the program in the limelight, as he was a two-time district tournament finalist, and in 2003 he won the District I-AA singles championship.
He was really my introduction to Johnson County tennis, and he and I formed a bond that has never been broken.
Now living in Johnson City, Cornett is a personal trainer and a very good one.
In 2003 Steve Nave, a former Hampton High School basketball player, took over the program, and he has been able to be a part of the lives of three tremendous players.
James Cox, Wade Tugman and Carlton Tugman have been a part of a very successful era of Longhorn tennis.
I can tell you that all three of these kids’ parents sacrificed a lot of time and money to make them successful.
Wade and Carlton have sort of become part of Elizabethton.
Wade plays for Milligan College, and Carlton is going to play for Milligan next year
As for Nave, I can honestly say he has cared for every kid who has come through his program. He thinks just as much for the No. 6 player as he does the No. 1.
The Elizabethton program has taken notice of what Johnson County has accomplished.
The Cyclone parents over the years have been very supportive of the Longhorn kids, and have even adopted them when they’re playing other school’s players in postseason tournaments.
To be honest, I’m very concerned about the future of Longhorn tennis with the economy as bad as it is, and a push in the county toward other sports.
It’s fine to push other sports, but most of the sports in Johnson County don’t have the tradition of tennis.
People have gotten educations because of this sport. Holly Adams deserves the same opportunities as people did 20 years ago.
Looking back, it’s been an honor and still is an honor to be covering a program that has beaten all odds, and in the process been a positive force in the small town of Mountain City.
Matt Hill is a correspondent for the Elizabethton Star.