By Zach Gullion
Thwock! A tennis ball screams off the racket of a Delta Tennis player.
The match is over; they’ve done it again. Delta Tennis is victorious over Burris for the 2020 Sectional Championship.
For the past 28 straight years, the boys’ tennis program has been triumphant in every sectional championship.
Although he may not want the recognition, the root of the devotion, success and motivation is boys’ and girls’ tennis head coach Tim Cleland.
Since the start of his coaching career in 1989, Cleland has developed a coaching philosophy that’s able to vary from person to person. That philosophy is key to the continuous success of the Delta tennis program.
Junior Adam Altobella, a three-year boys’ tennis player, says Cleland has “really refined his coaching methods throughout the years.”
At the heart of that philosophy is treating tennis with the utmost importance. Cleland says if you “treat it as a minor sport, you’ll end up with minor results, in all aspects.”
Within this philosophy are several smaller activities that help it take shape. These include postseason banquets with guest speakers, senior leadership development meetings, and special events such as Smash Cancer and Teacher Appreciation Day. Things like “AIM High” character development t-shirts and off-court character development sessions such as the John Wooden pyramid of success and a funny excuse list to show how excuses are bad also feed into Cleland’s philosophy.
He says he wants to “teach more than tennis. I want to teach kids how to get involved in community service. … I want people to lead, I want people to serve others, and I want people to love each other.”
Winning the sectional championship 28 years in a row is no easy feat. Cleland says, “It’s kind of overwhelming, but you do that a day at a time not 10 years at a time.”
With so many wins and very few losses, one may think that the big losses hit hard. However, Cleland wasn’t very discouraged. “Every one of those seasons ends with a loss. … You’re going to eventually run into someone and lose,” he says.
He says that he’ll only have regrets when he feels like he and his team didn’t work hard enough.
Senior player Josef Zacek says that in 2019 “when we lost regionals against Marion, the huddle afterward was very emotional. You have a lot of guys who are really upset about the result. … At the moment, you just got a couple guys on the team that you wouldn’t think you’d ever see them cry.”
Altobella says, “It made me really want to work harder over the off season to contribute at the varsity level this year and hopefully beat Marion.”
Delta ended up defeating Marion for the regional title this year with Altobella winning the deciding match at No. 3 singles.
Cleland saw success right at the start of his coaching career, however, it wasn’t achieved at the same level as now. He says that although his teams have never had a losing season, they didn’t always play the toughest teams. They continue to increase the difficulty of the schedule every year and now play against “a minimum of 10 teams in the top 25 of the state rankings,” he says.
Cleland has old VHS tapes of his earliest teams playing. He says, “I was kind of laughing at myself. I can’t believe one of my teams ever played that way.”
Through the years, there have been many players who have left an impact on Cleland. He says one player, J.D. Greenlee, “went from No. 1 junior varsity to No. 1 varsity in one off-season.” Cleland says Greenlee had great attention to detail and was full of hard work. Greenlee went on to play at the University of Indianapolis and now is a local eye doctor.
Cleland says that he’s “been fortunate to be around a whole bunch of people like that.” He says they’re now in good professions, and “they did that by not settling, [by] setting expectations high, [by] going above and beyond.”
Zacek also formed a positive relationship with Greenlee, who is his uncle. He is the one who told Zacek about Delta’s program. Zacek says he and Greenlee have been hitting and working together since Zacek’s freshman year, which helped him rise to No. 2 varsity singles this season.
Altobella says his biggest role model is Delta tennis alumnus Ben Bamidele. “I use him as kind of an inspiration to get where I wanted to be after only starting my freshman year because he was one of those kids that started his freshman year and I saw how much success he had,” Altobella says.
Bamidele played No. 2 singles as a senior in 2018.
“I think out of all the coaches I’ve had through all my years, coach [Cleland] seems to care more about his players and put more effort into his coaching than anyone else I’ve ever seen,” Altobella says.
Through great leadership and devotion, Cleland has been able to lead his teams to victory in 28 straight sectional titles on State Road 28 in Muncie, Ind.
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