May 9, 2014
By Pete LaFleur
The term “competition” often conjures up thoughts of rivalries and animosity.
Winning and losing.
Besting an opponent.
The pursuit of glory.
In truth, the word compete derives from the antique Latin competere, “to strive in common,” or in classical Latin, “to come together.” The key distinction between these two definitions and those words listed above is a fundamental difference in mindset. One is focused on the winning individual’s end goal: the victory and the glory. The other, the actual Latin derivation, stresses the communal aspect of competition, the joint endeavor. This focus is shifted more onto the shared process, rather than the singular end reward.
The word competition is meant to stress the “with” or the “together,” rather than the “against.” It’s no coincidence that sports memories involving family usually involve more of that “with” factor.
You would be hard-pressed to find a sport more family-oriented than tennis. The University of Notre Dame’s Jay Louderback — in his 25th season directing the Irish women’s tennis program in 2013-14 — is the product of one such well-known, even award-winning, tennis family. Taking the lead from his father and family patriarch J.C. Louderback, Jay has joined with his two siblings and members of the next generation to carry on that tennis legacy.
If you were to wander into the southeastern Kansas town of Arkansas City (Ark City for short) and did a little name-dropping, you’d be well received simply by claiming to know the Louderback family. Former three-sport standout player/coach J.C. Louderback is a native son of this traditional Midwestern town, and Ark City High School in May 2012 honored J.C. and the rest of his clan by naming its courts the Louderback Family Tennis Complex.
Nine years earlier the United States Tennis Association (USTA) bestowed its 2003 Family of the Year Award on the Louderbacks, recognizing their excellence “in advancing the USTA’s mission to promote and grow the game of tennis, both on and off the court.”
That USTA Family Award easily remains the most important honor in Jay Louderback’s tennis life.
“Jay is so laid-back and ridiculously humble that he would never put his own awards on display,” says former Notre Dame assistant coach Liz Barker Balanis, who still lives in South Bend and remains close friends with Jay and his wife Denise.
“But when the Louderbacks received that family award, it was a big deal for Jay and he thought it was really cool. It means a lot to him because it includes more than just himself. It honors his family. They all are very important to Jay.”
The spirit and values central to Louderback’s family-based tennis roots have sprouted throughout his own program. Even Notre Dame’s reputation for producing stellar women’s doubles play is no surprise, considering the commonalities between doubles success and strong family bonds. The Jay Louderback coaching tree already boasts four Division I “franchises” (led by former Irish assistants and/or players Michelle Dasso at Illinois, Christian Thompson at Denver, Elizabeth Schmidt at Rice and Julia Sell at LSU), while the program’s alumni remain close with their former coach, even reuniting with him at various weddings over the years.
In the 32-year history of the NCAA Division I Women’s Tennis Championships, only one northern school has advanced as far as the NCAA semifinal round: Notre Dame, in 2009 and again in 2010. The 2014 Irish are seeking to advance out of the regional round and to the final championship site (top 16 teams) for the 10th time in the Louderback era, after five previous quarterfinal appearances.
Notre Dame players have combined to receive 29 All-America awards in the Louderback era, while the Irish program has been part of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association All-Academic team 16 of the past 18 years, in recognition of maintaining a 3.2-plus team grade-point average. Louderback’s players have received Notre Dame’s two most prestigious athletic honors — the Byron Kanaley Award for leadership in athletics, academics and service (12 winners, including current senior Jennifer Kellner) and the Francis Patrick O’Connor Award for embodiment of the Notre Dame spirit (eight winners) — more often than any other varsity program during that span.
Over the past 16 years, only twice (in 2007 and 2011) has the Notre Dame women’s tennis program not produced a Kanaley or O’Connor Award recipient — an impressive feat for a sport with a senior class typically consisting of only two or three players (the 2011 team had only one senior).
Louderback’s nearly 700 career victories (689-384) include three seasons at Iowa State overseeing both the men’s and women’s programs. His 644 career wins in the women’s game (485-206 at Notre Dame) are third most among active NCAA Division I coaches, six behind Pepperdine’s Gualberto Escudero (650). Longtime Indiana University coach Lin Loring — a close colleague of Louderback’s — owns the top spot with 812 victories.
Notre Dame’s athletics history stretches back to the 1890s and has included 28 different varsity teams over the years. Louderback is one of only 12 individuals ever to coach the same sport at Notre Dame for 25-plus seasons. Among that dozen, he is one of only five who have coached their Irish teams to top-four national finishes in back-to-back seasons. Starting with Louderback’s fourth season in 1993, Notre Dame has qualified for the team portion of the NCAA Championships 21 of the past 22 seasons.
As for his own coaching awards that he rarely displays, Louderback is a 14-time conference coach of the year, eight-time ITA regional coach of the year and the ITA honored him in 2006 as its national coach of the year.
Wait, How Do You Pronounce Your Hometown?
As is the case with many high achievers, to understand Jay Louderback you must first understand where he grew up: Arkansas City, Kan., 60 miles southeast of Wichita.
Despite its relative proximity to the state of Arkansas, the Kansas town is pronounced differently: the final “s” is articulated (Ark-Kansas), rather than enunciating the final syllable as “saw,” like when pronouncing the state of Arkansas. For simplicity, most locals refer to the town as Ark City.
Situated four miles from the Oklahoma border and 150 miles west of the Missouri state line, Arkansas City has a population of roughly 12,500. J.C. and his wife Donna Louderback are lifelong residents, and Jay’s sister Jan Krisik has settled back in her hometown. She is the women’s tennis coach at Ark City High School, in addition to assisting her father with supervising the town’s recreational tennis program (a role J.C. has held for more than 50 years).
Four generations of Louderbacks have called Arkansas City home. Donna Louderback’s father Gene Waltrip attended Ark City High School in the 1920s. Three more generations also attended Ark City High School, including Jan’s kids Kyle and Kali, who went on to play collegiate athletics — Kyle in football at Southwestern (Okla.) and Kali on her uncle Jay’s tennis team at Notre Dame.
Former Arkansas City mayor Robert Docking served as governor of Kansas from 1967-75. Actress Elizabeth Taylor lived briefly in Ark City, as a five-year-old in the 1930s. A handful of pro athletes — including baseball catcher Darren Daulton and basketball’s Lionel Hollins — were Arkansas City products.
Beyond that short list, it’s not a stretch to indicate that the Louderback family comprises some of Ark City’s more noteworthy residents over the past half-century. J.C., in particular, was a legendary three-sport coach at Arkansas City High School, creating a tennis dynasty that won several state titles and produced numerous NCAA Division I players.
In his formative years, Jay Louderback spent plenty of quality time with his grandparents, Gene and Lucille Waltrip. Gene, a local bank manager, moonlighted as a piano player in a dance band.
“My grandpa Gene was the nicest, funniest person I have ever known. He and my dad are the two biggest influences on my life,” Jay says.
In addition to those role models, Jay grew up surrounded by numerous high-level athletes, rare for a town so small as Ark City. His senior class in 1972 produced eight Division I athletes — four in tennis, four in football — among 225 graduates. The block where Louderback grew up featured six other neighborhood kids who all who went on to play collegiate sports — two at Oklahoma State (baseball and tennis), two at Kansas (football and baseball), a Washburn football player and a Southwestern (Okla.) basketball player.
Tennis or Baseball? A Life-Impacting Decision
Young Jay Louderback was active in four youth sports: football, basketball, baseball and tennis. Under the guidance of his father, he knew he eventually would need to drop a sport and ultimately become more specialized in one of the four.
As an 11-year-old, Louderback completed a third summer of Little League baseball for a team that won only one of its 16 games.
“My dad was smart enough to say I should decide whether I was going to focus on baseball or tennis during the summers,” says Louderback, who was a third baseman. “He reminded me that Ark City High School did not have a baseball team, an obvious drawback.”
The choice, ultimately, became an easy one. He removed baseball from his plate, at least on a participatory level. Anyone familiar with Jay Louderback, even casually, knows he has long been an avid fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The heightened focus on tennis did not necessarily guarantee long-term success. “I was unsure if I’d ever be good enough to play varsity tennis,” says Louderback, who set the simple goal of cracking the varsity top six by his senior year.
Louderback did, in fact, make the varsity, maybe two years ahead of schedule, as a 10th-grader. The lanky competitor — who grew from 5-11 to 6-3 during high school — also became a starting quarterback/receiver on the Bulldog football team and served as a versatile member of the basketball squad.
J.C. Louderback and his children are quick to highlight the true hero in their family: Donna. “Without her, we all would have been in big trouble, long ago,” says J.C.
During the string of summer tennis tournaments, where the Louderback siblings honed their craft, Donna drove them around the state, offering support and advice when needed. J.C. remained in Ark City, teaching rec-league tennis and umpiring baseball games.
As a youngster, Jay and his siblings looked forward to a weekly Louderback tradition. “Anyone in the family who is still around eats at my parents’ home on Sunday nights,” says Jay, who echoed brother Brad’s love for their mother’s trademark lasagna.
“My mom rarely misses cooking a great Sunday meal,” adds Brad. “Jay and I were growing boys. She was a great cook. There was not a lot left on the table, that’s for sure.”
A Tennis Legend
J.C. (short for Johnnie Conrad) Louderback fashioned his own standout career in football, basketball and tennis at Ark City Junior College in the early 1950s. He later competed in all three sports at Southwestern College in nearby Winfield. After returning home, J.C. embarked on his coaching career, initially leading the tennis teams at ACJC (later renamed Cowley County Community College) and Ark City High School. His ACJC teams won three state titles, led by the 1958 national runner-up squad. J.C.’s tenure as a mathematics teacher and men’s tennis coach at ACHS spanned five decades (1957-93), along with stints coaching women’s tennis and men’s basketball, plus 22 seasons as an assistant football coach.
The Louderback patriarch further made his mark officiating football, basketball and baseball — with his career as a college football referee extending into the late 1990s. He was a 15-year president of the Kansas District Tennis Association and seven-year commissioner of the Ark Valley League.
During his illustrious coaching career, J.C. guided Ark City High School to three state tennis titles (1989-91), a significant accomplishment for a school with only 800 students. He was honored as the state’s high school tennis coach of the year four times, USTA regional coach of the year twice, and accumulated numerous hall of fame inductions.
J.C. loved to teach, he loved to coach — and he excelled at both pursuits. His quest for knowledge even extended to casual reading at home.
“Our dad would be sitting around the house just reading math books for the fun of it,” says a still astounded Brad. “He said it helped make his brain smarter. We thought he was crazy — but it’s just another aspect of his brilliance and individuality.”
What Would J.C. Do?
Those who have known Jay Louderback for an extended time will confirm that he looks the same as he did a couple decades ago — “aside from the gray hair, that is a byproduct of coaching women for so long,” says his sister Jan with a laugh.
J.C. Louderback also exudes a much-younger aura than his actual age — even now, on the verge of turning 80. Part of that mystique is due to his relatively close proximity in age to his oldest child — as J.C. was only 20 when Jay was born.
“My dad always could play any sport with us on a very competitive level. I couldn’t beat him in tennis until I was 16,” says Jay. “My dad loves to win, but he’d rather lose than not compete at all. He would always put himself out there and battle to the end.”
J.C. became known for a firm, yet fundamentally laid-back, approach. Such a coaching style obviously was passed down to his eldest son.
“My dad never was one to yell, but he expected us to play as hard as we could on every point,” says Jay, who was coached by J.C. in seventh-grade basketball, sophomore football and throughout his high school tennis career.
“I have similar expectations from my own players. Everybody loved playing for my dad, because he put so much of his own effort into the process.”
Raised in a blue-collar town that was “a great place to grow up” according to Louderback, Jay associated with a core group of friends whose parents worked at one of Ark City’s three primary employers: the Santa Fe Railroad, the Anderson-Pritchard Oil Corporation (APCO), and the Rodeo Meat-Packing House.
By the time he was a senior at ACHS in 1972, Louderback had become part of a dominant group of veterans on the tennis team. He joined classmates John Farrar (Kansas), Mickey Coats (Oklahoma State) and Wayne Marsh (West Texas State) in going on to play Division I tennis.
During Louderback’s sophomore season, Ark City played a big match versus a powerful Shawnee Mission East High School team. While Louderback was playing his No. 3 doubles match, Shawnee Mission East clinched the team competition. The No. 3 doubles result would not impact which team won — it only would influence the final team score.
“We were so upset that the team lost. We basically tanked the third set and lost our match,” admits the legendary coach’s son.
Moments after that match had completed, J.C. Louderback approached his No. 3 doubles team and delivered a simple, yet piercing, message. “My dad was not happy with our effort in giving away that set,” says Jay. “He looked at us and said, `I just want to let you guys know that might be the last match you play for this varsity team.’
“He knew how big a deal it was for us to be playing varsity, but we had let everybody down in how we lost — with a lack of effort and lack of pride.”
In 20 calm but direct words, J.C. Louderback had delivered a more impactful message than if he had spent 20 minutes berating the doubles duo. In subtle fashion, the message came through loud and clear.
“From that day forward, I played hard the rest of my life, all the time,” says Jay.
J.C. Louderback was a bit ahead of his time when it came to populating his roster with the area’s top athletes. Several of Jay’s tennis teammates at Ark City similarly played more high-profile sports at the school.
“My dad would talk kids into playing tennis when they were young,” says Jay. “For such a small town, it was pivotal that the top athletes gravitate to tennis.”
J.C. even was a trailblazer when it came to instilling early tennis pro habits among his teenage players. “Everyone knows about the revolutionary Bollettieri Academy in Florida, but my dad beat them to the idea of using high school kids to help train younger kids, in a feeder system,” says Brad Louderback.
“He was so far ahead of the ballgame in things he did with youth tennis in Ark City. My dad transformed it into a tennis town.”
Life Lessons Learned from a Fifth Down
For avid college football fans, the name J.C. Louderback may sound strangely familiar, particularly for those who closely followed the former Big Eight Conference. Louderback became known for serving as the head official for the crew of referees in the infamous 1990 “Fifth Down Game” between Missouri and Colorado.
In that game, Colorado was driving for a go-ahead touchdown in the waning seconds at Missouri. Colorado inadvertently earned an extra (fifth) down near the goal line, due to confusion caused when the Buffaloes initially spiked the ball on first down — and then again on fourth, thinking it was third down, as the sideline marker indicated. Colorado ultimately won 33-31 on a touchdown as time expired.
Plenty of Notre Dame fans remember that game, as it helped Colorado reach the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day 1991 against the Irish. That game also ended in controversy, with a clipping penalty negating Raghib Ismail’s thrilling late punt return, preserving the 10-9 Colorado win. The Buffs earned a share of the 1990 national championship.
J.C. Louderback endured plenty of scrutiny following that 1990 Colorado-Missouri matchup. The longtime referee never has shied away from his take on the incident. “I’m not hiding anything,” he told media members 20 years later. “When there’s an error, you stand up and say exactly what happened.”
Jay Louderback and his siblings learned a great lesson from the incident. “Dad took all the responsibility, even though the other refs should have known what down it was,” says Jay. “He was a man, confronted the situation and told it like it was.
“I learned when you are the leader, you are responsible for the actions of your group. My dad didn’t back away from the media questions. I don’t know of anyone more prepared to go through what he went through.”
On a lighter note, J.C. Louderback’s influence even impacted his children’s writing format — as his trademark ALL-CAPS handwriting and typing filtered down to two of the three kids.
“I printed with all caps for a long time,” says Jay. “My dad was my hero. I just assumed that was the way you were supposed to print.”
Jan Krisik’s own use of all caps has remained to this day. “My I.T. guy at school says I’m breaking the rules,” says the Louderback sister with a laugh.
The all-caps writing remains yet another Louderback trend. It’s an example of a family proud of its father and always seeking to emulate him.
Over the years, some combination of J.C., Jay and Brad Louderback has played at various regional and national tennis tournaments, including popular father-son events. “I’ve always done my best to stay out of Jay’s way when we are playing,” says J.C. with a grin. “Jay always was easy to coach and he developed into a great player and coach. I’m obviously very proud of him.”
The Ups and Downs of College Athletics
After graduating from Ark City High School in 1972, Jay Louderback turned in a series of strong summer tennis results before heading off to Wichita State as a scholarship student-athlete. His tennis skills continued to expand as he enjoyed the benefits of playing year-round.
Louderback also was exposed to an athletic department stocked with successful teams. Wichita State basketball qualified as a hot ticket, and the Shocker football team played Division I at the time. Wichita State baseball then was a non-varsity team but soon became a Division I power.
The 1976 Missouri Valley Conference tennis champion at No. 3 singles, Louderback earned team MVP honors as a senior. He graduated with a degree in business administration before trying his hand as a tennis pro, in Wichita, Kan., and Battle Creek, Mich.
The future longtime collegiate coach actually had endured an unstable coaching situation as a collegiate player at Wichita State from 1973-76 — when the men’s tennis team played for five different head coaches.
“All that turnover with our coaching staff was tough,” says Louderback. “That played a role in my own career, because it always was hard for me to leave a school. I knew what it felt like when your coach leaves.”
The contrast proved striking. In his formative years, a legendary coach, his own father, had guided Louderback. Four years later, he completed a collegiate career devoid of any tangible coaching consistency.
Not a Big Shock — Back to Wichita
It didn’t take Jay Louderback long to realize the tennis pro route in Battle Creek might not be his cup of tea. “It involved working with a lot of kids and adults who were out there to have a good time. I was still very competitive in everything I did,” he says.
That competitive fire translated to a quick return to the collegiate game. There was only one hang-up: College coaching positions are highly coveted. So, Louderback cast a wide net, writing to 120 colleges, indicating his interest in any opening. He heard back from four, one being his alma mater. In the end, it really didn’t come as a big shock: He soon found himself heading back to Wichita, to direct the fledgling Wichita State women’s tennis program.
In fall 1979, collegiate women’s sports operated under the auspices of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Tennis and other women’s sports would not come under the NCAA umbrella until 1982.
During its first four varsity seasons prior to Louderback’s arrival, Wichita State women’s tennis had only a part-time coach. The Wichita State alumnus, as a full-time coach, ultimately directed five of his seven teams to top-two finishes within the Missouri Valley Conference.
Louderback’s initial experience with collegiate recruiting proved a snap, as he inked his first signee with minimal effort. Of course, it was his sister. Jan Louderback, who later married former Wichita State baseball pitcher Joe Krisik, remains among the program’s top-10 leaders in career wins.
Jan estimates she and big brother got along “about 95 percent of the time — but the other five percent, one of us would call my parents to complain, and within five minutes the other would do the same.”
Louderback had no assistant coach to lean on and share duties. He had no student manager. He qualified as a classic jack-of-all-trades, getting his feet wet on the ground floor.
“I was stringing racquets, coordinating travel, getting the water out for practice,” says Louderback. “It was like managing a restaurant, doing all the tasks so you know what makes the entire operation run smoothly.
“I’m glad I had that experience, because it has helped me realize when people in support roles actually know what they are doing. Now, I am so appreciative of having an assistant and support staff.”
Jay and his wife Denise (the former Denise Finley) — who had grown up in Winfield, the rival of Ark City — thoroughly enjoyed their seven years in Wichita. Their daughter Bailey was born in 1985, and the young family loved life around a bustling college campus. The early 1980s became a heyday for Shocker men’s basketball, led by stars Cliff Levingston, Aubrey Sherrod and Xavier McDaniel.
“Wichita is a wonderful place and some of our closest friends remain people we met there,” says Jay. “It was tough to leave, but I was ready to take that next step.”
Coaching Two Teams, Twice as Busy
Jay Louderback had wondered how he would fare as head coach of a men’s team. Such an opportunity presented itself in the summer of 1986 at Iowa State. There was one catch: The hire would become head coach of both the Cyclone men’s and women’s tennis teams. Such a setup certainly was more popular in the 1980s than it is today.
Jay and Denise took the plunge — making the move to Ames, some 230 miles northeast. “That was a busy three years,” says Louderback. “I also was teaching PE and was gone a lot. Bailey was young, so Denise had her hands full.”
Finding time to recruit marked one of the biggest challenges. Nonetheless, in Louderback’s final season, the Cyclone men’s team placed fourth in the 1989 Big Eight standings — the program’s highest finish in a quarter century.
Louderback developed a solid coaching friendship with Ron Smarr, then the University of Colorado’s men’s and women’s tennis coach. One fateful day in 1989, Louderback’s phone rang. Smarr was on the other end.
The Notre Dame women’s tennis job was open. Smarr was convinced Louderback was the ideal candidate to take over that promising, but unproven, program.
Making the Right Move
Jay Louderback initially did not give serious consideration toward applying for the Notre Dame position. He wanted to give another year to Iowa State despite the busy pace of that multi-layered job. Then, the phone rang again.
This time it was Bobby Bayliss, the third-year coach of the Notre Dame men’s tennis team. Louderback had never met Bayliss, but if anyone could talk him into applying for the job, it might well have been the Notre Dame men’s coach.
Louderback balked at pursuing the formal interview process. A week passed, and the phone rang once more. A suddenly now-familiar voice was on the other end. Bayliss — a longtime colleague of Smarr — had followed up with the Colorado coach and they both were landing back at the same conclusion: Louderback should throw his hat in the ring.
Bayliss had arranged details with Notre Dame athletics director Dick Rosenthal. Notre Dame wanted to fly Louderback to campus to discuss the coaching vacancy. The proverbial ball sat back in Jay’s court.
With friendly tag-team nudging from Smarr and Bayliss, Louderback finally agreed and made the flight into South Bend on a beautiful June day. The future Notre Dame coach soon realized his decision to interview should have been a no-brainer all along.
“I was blown away by the facilities and how beautiful the campus was,” says Louderback, who had been to Notre Dame once previously to attend a basketball game.
“What an idiot I had been for even considering not applying. I always had been one of those rare people who was neutral about Notre Dame. That neutrality quickly ended when I saw the fullness of the campus.”
If, by chance, you met Louderback on that June day in 1989 and, if you recall that his gait seemed a little off — well, there was a reason for that. Earlier that morning, Bayliss swung by Louderback’s hotel to transport him to campus. The job applicant was ready to go, decked out in coat and tie, plus one curious accessory: tennis shoes. All of his dress shoes were back in Ames.
Bayliss, ever the quick thinker, offered to swap shoes. Bobby easily slid into Louderback’s size-11 sneakers, but Jay yearned for a shoehorn as he crammed his feet into the Bayliss-provided, size-10 dress shoes.
“By the end of that morning, Jay was walking with a limp — but he ended up getting the job, so it all worked out,” says Bayliss, chuckling at that 25-year-old retread story.
So, Louderback embarked on his third coaching stint, all in the Midwest, within an 800-mile radius. Louderback still remembered the disappointment of having to play for five coaches during his own college career. He and Denise struggled leaving both Wichita and Ames, saying goodbye to friends and cities they had come to love.
Maybe it was going to be different living in South Bend and working at Notre Dame. Maybe this would prove to be a long, successful and memory-filled experience. Louderback inherited a program that had been Division I for only four years and had yet to participate in the NCAA Championships or earn a national ranking at that level.
Notre Dame qualifies as a place where many successful coaches have retired, before riding off into the sunset. Louderback started at Notre Dame as a spry 35-year-old. Retirement understandably was far from his thoughts in the late 1980s. But now — 25 years later — he’s much closer to 65 than 35, and the past two-plus decades have yielded plenty of those hoped-for memories.
Building Blocks for the Notre Dame Program
Louderback’s first day on the job at Notre Dame came in mid-July 1989, and his first phone call went to the player first on his recruiting list: Terri Vitale. The older daughter of legendary basketball announcer Dick Vitale, the highly-sought recruit had been set on signing with Duke later that year. But Notre Dame and its new first-year coach quickly entered the picture.
That same afternoon there came a knock on Louderback’s office door. Christy Faustmann, another top high school player, had dropped by the Notre Dame campus, unannounced, en route back to South Carolina after competing at a tournament in Chicago.
Louderback scrambled to give the promising recruit a tour. “I had no idea where anything was, it was my first day,” he says now with a chuckle. Things must have gone well, though, because Faustmann committed to the Irish, as did Vitale. Lisa Tholen ultimately completed that first recruiting class, a trio that helped launch the new era of Notre Dame women’s tennis. All three had been good friends during their junior tennis days. Those bonds would grow even stronger as college teammates.
“Terri, Christy and Lisa played immediately, they were great all-around players and they instilled a strong work ethic. They helped make us good right from the jump,” says Louderback.
During the recruiting of Vitale (now married to former Notre Dame lacrosse player Christopher Sforzo) Louderback was excited to make that home visit and meet Dick Vitale. The two became fast friends, with the fast-talking, energy-oozing broadcaster often calling the coach to chat about his daughter’s game or other random subjects.
“Jay had a constant dialogue with my dad, who was very supportive and respectful of challenges that coaches face,” says Terri Vitale, whose sister Sherri later joined the Irish.
“My dad knew Jay was a man of great character, a family guy who wanted the best for his players in the whole college experience. There is no ego there with Jay. There is only trust. When he makes a promise, like he did to me and my family, he honors it.”
It’s hard to imagine the typical conversations between Louderback and Dick Vitale being characterized as a true “dialogue,” in terms of a 50-50 sharing of airspace. We’re talking opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to the art of conversing.
“Jay is a man of integrity. He also is a man of few words, and in a lot of ways his personality is very different from my dad,” says Terri Vitale, a member of the Notre Dame Monogram Club board of directors since 2009 and set to become the third female president in the history of that organization in June 2017.
“My dad clearly is louder and more talkative, but he respected Jay and knew Jay had a great vision for the program. Notre Dame mirrored the values my parents had taught me — and Jay was a central part of that values system.”
Only three women’s tennis alumni have served on the board of directors for the Notre Dame Monogram Club letter-winners organization, and two of them were part of Louderback’s initial class — Vitale and Faustmann (now Christy Faustmann Hines). Laura Lee Williams, who played tennis for the Irish in the mid-1980s, was the first women’s tennis alum to serve on the Monogram Club board.
Starting Strong in the 1990s
After securing that first class, Louderback still had to hire an assistant coach who could help direct the program as the calendar flipped to the 1990s. Maureen McNamara had known Louderback during her career playing tennis at Illinois. She had spent five postgraduate years working in the corporate sector, but she was eager to get back into collegiate athletics.
“This is a very competitive industry, but I wanted to get my foot in the door and jumped at the chance to interview with Jay,” says McNamara.
Dipping into her corporate America wardrobe, McNamara picking out her best business suit and high heels to make a strong impression. Let’s just say she came a tad overdressed.
“Jay took me to the old Frank’s Red Hots on State Road 23,” says McNamara, who saw her entire interview conducted in one of South Bend’s more casual former dining establishments. Louderback was sold, offering McNamara the job before she left town that day.
“It turned out to be a life-changing experience working with outstanding student-athletes and a world-class coach,” says McNamara, who later earned a graduate degree from Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business near the end of her seven seasons as Louderback’s assistant. She actually has been at Notre Dame nearly as long as the man who hired her — currently serving as an assistant athletics director, spending the past 17 years working in various development and corporate relations areas.
The initial Notre Dame team of the Louderback era cracked the national top 25, a first in the history of the program. Tracy Barton and Melissa Harris qualified for NCAA singles competition, with Harris reaching the second round (another program first).
Louderback and McNamara built their teams around that cornerstone first class and another key early addition, Boston-area native Wendy Crabtree. The 1994 doubles tandem of Tholen and Crabtree became the program’s first All-Americans of the Division I era (since ’86), with Crabtree also earning All-America singles honors in 1994 and ’95.
In addition to Crabtree, the 1993 freshman class included Sherri Vitale. Adding the second Vitale sister — aside from signing his own sister 13 years earlier — ranks as one of the easier recruiting tasks in Louderback’s 35-year career.
“I don’t think Sherri took a recruiting visit anywhere else,” says older sister Terri. “It probably was a done deal for Sherri by the time I’d finished my first week of school. Our family knew Notre Dame was a great place and Jay was the perfect coach. Why would my parents and I not want that for another family member?”
Crabtree’s senior season in 1996 became a breakthrough year for the Irish, who advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals and finished No. 6 in the national rankings. The 1990s ultimately produced five All-Americans — Jennifer Hall, Tiffany Gates and Michelle Dasso, in addition to Crabtree and Tholen — for the rapidly-emerging program.
Crabtree and Hall (a 1999 graduate) earned the rare double distinction of being All-Americans and CoSIDA Academic All-Americans. Through January 2014, only 64 Notre Dame student-athletes had turned in that dual honor.
The decade of the ’90s was ending. Louderback and his Irish women’s tennis program were just getting started.
Recruiting the Right Players — and Building a Team the Right Way
In a sport with a small roster size, a coach can’t afford many recruiting misses. Whether it’s misdiagnosed talent or a bad fit for team chemistry, one mismatched addition can upset the balance.
Throughout the quarter-century of the Louderback era, there have been significantly more recruiting hits, not to mention home runs. More importantly, the program’s alumni attest to the coach’s keen sense of perception and strong leadership extending throughout the career of every player.
“Jay transformed Notre Dame into a top program, not only by recruiting strong players but also with a focus on that team mentality, adding players who would support each other and get along,” says Wendy Crabtree Krayer.
“So often college coaches are concerned with just winning. I really appreciate the importance Jay places on having a team that meshes well.”
An examination of the Louderback ledger, in the areas of recruiting and team building, reveals several discernible trends:
- Notre Dame players over the past 25 years have hailed from throughout the nation, covering nearly 25 home states.
- Louderback has long been a champion and supporter of American youth tennis, resisting the trend to sign foreign-based players for a quick fix (all of his scholarship players have come from the United States).
- No player has left via transfer during the Louderback era that has featured 76 monogram winners who have played for the Irish under his watch.
- A priority within every season schedule is trying to visit the hometown areas of current players on the Irish roster.
- The program’s team aspect is readily apparent in the continual success of its doubles play, something of a lost art in today’s collegiate game.
Character Breeds Success
Stretching back to his early coaching days, Louderback has understood the value of building a roster stocked with individuals of strong character who also happen to be talented players.
Holyn Lord Koch is one of many Louderback-era players who fit that criteria, finishing with 99 singles wins from 1993-96 while also being honored by Notre Dame athletics as the 1996 female recipient of the Francis Patrick O’Connor Award. The O’Connor Award is presented to those who best display the “total embodiment of the spirit of Notre Dame, as exemplified by their contribution and inspiration to their teams.”
The O’Connor Award easily could be renamed in honor of Louderback’s program. Over the past 21 years (1994-2014), nearly 40 percent of the female honorees have been women’s tennis players: Faustmann (1994), Lord (’96), Kelly Zalinski (2000), Dasso (’01), Katie Cunha (’03), Sarah Jane Connelly (’05), Brook Buck (’08) and Chrissie McGaffigan (’13).
Buck qualified as a rare double honoree in 2007-08 after also receiving the prestigious Byron Kanaley Award recognizing student-athletes who are most exemplary as students and leaders.
Starting with Alice Lohrer in 1990 through Jennifer Kellner in 2014, a dozen different Notre Dame women’s tennis players have received the Kanaley Award over the past 25 years. No other varsity program has come close to matching that consistent recognition when it comes time for honoring the elite of the elite. The program’s other Kanaley Award recipients include Kim Pacella (1991), Crabtree (’96), Hall (’99), Nina Vaughan (2002), Alicia Salas (’04), Lauren Connelly (’06), Kelcy Tefft (’09), Louderback’s niece Kali Krisik (’10) and Shannon Mathews (’12).
Over the past 16 seasons, only two years have passed (2007 and 2011, when there was only one senior on the roster) without the Irish women’s tennis program adding a Kanaley or O’Connor award recipient.
After Buck in 2008, Krisik similarly became a double honoree as a 2010 recipient of the athletic department’s award for community service excellence.
Whether it be Faustmann in 1994, or McGaffigan in 2013, all of the honorees cited have one common denominator: their coach. Louderback was the one who first recruited them, and he in turn guided them during their undergraduate years.
“Whereas other coaches would simply look at results while recruiting, Jay recruits the whole person,” says Holyn Lord Koch, now a mother of three children. “Jay found players who could make the difficult jump from junior tennis to college, without the normal burnout.
“His development of his players and his team simultaneously provided a winning combination. Jay was able to take people who had played only as individuals and made them part of a team that thrived.”
High levels of academic performance also have been a hallmark of the Louderback era. In one six-term span from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2010, the women’s tennis squad registered the Notre Dame athletics department’s highest team grade-point average during five of those six semesters, ranging from 3.46 to 3.58.
When Vaughan joined the Notre Dame program in fall 1998, she transitioned from a world of junior tennis firmly focused on individual accomplishment.
“Everything I had done in higher-level tennis mostly was on a personal level, ranging from winning and losing to earning a scholarship,” says the current Nina Vaughan Mehigan, now also a mother of three.
“At Notre Dame, we immediately became part of a bigger picture, part of a team. One of Jay’s true gifts is the ability to foster that atmosphere of teamwork and camaraderie. Many of us had been fierce rivals growing up, but Jay transformed us into a true team and we all cared deeply for one another. It was a remarkable feat–a great testament to Jay’s value as a coach and leader of the program.”
Doubles All-American Becky Varnum Bucolo, who played for the Irish from 1999-2002, brought up an interesting twist — a method to Louderback’s madness, even if he is unaware of it.
“When I had a great match, I could always tell by the spark in Jay’s eye and his demeanor that he was proud of me. It made me want to play harder and win more,” says Bucolo, another mother of three.
“Of course, it really never was about me. We all played for each other and for Notre Dame. Despite that focus on our team, Jay always took time to make sure each of us knew we were a unique part of the group. He had a way of drawing out our best qualities, and uniting those qualities to form a strong team with a great will to win.”
A Melting Pot of Lifelong Friends
Starting with that first recruiting class — players from Florida, South Carolina and Kansas (including Tholen from Louderback’s beloved Wichita) — the Notre Dame women’s tennis program steadily drew players from all corners of the country. Those hometown areas include nearby Midwestern states, but also an impressively high number of Californians (16) have been added to the program under Louderback’s watch. That West Coast group includes alums Marisa Velasco, Kim Guy, Lindsey Green, Vaughan and Caylan Leslie — plus current senior Britney Sanders along with current freshmen Mary Closs and Monica Robinson.
Louderback, who grew up a few miles from the Oklahoma border, even opened a pipeline to talent from the Sooner State. The program’s six recent Oklahomans include All-Americans Hall, Buck and Tefft, along with the Connelly sisters.
The Louderback-era recruiting coverage map also features seven Floridians (among them the Vitale sisters, plus current senior Julie Sabacinski), a few players from the Northwest (from Oregon and Washington), a couple from the Northeast (New York and Massachusetts), a few more Eastern Seaboard products from Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina — and even a sprinkling from the Southwest and mountain areas Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota and Texas.
One drawback to such a wide recruiting base is that players transferring would seem inevitable, whether it be due to homesickness or playing time issues. The reality: Not one player has left in the Louderback era.
“If that doesn’t show how much Jay’s players have enjoyed playing for him, I don’t know what does,” says Dasso, who as a collegiate head coach can appreciate even more the challenge of player retention.
Notre Dame’s current seniors hail from different corners of the country: New York (Kellner), Florida (Sabacinski) and California (Sanders). The three have become close friends, united in both their commonality and their differences.
“Over the years, we’ve had players come from California and they ended up settling in the Midwest or out east,” says Louderback.
“The make-up of our team gives the players a better sense of different parts of the country. They spend a lot of time together, often visiting each other’s hometowns during breaks and in the summer.”
Those bonds forged in the melting pot that is the Irish women’s tennis program remain strong to this day. Players regularly hold mini-reunions scattered around the country. More formal reunions commonly arise when wedding bells are ringing — and their head coach makes every effort to be there.
“Jay actually drove to my wedding in Oklahoma, came to the ceremony and had to drive right back because he started tennis camp the following day,” says Lauren Connelly Creevey, who recently moved to South Bend with her young family. “It meant so much that he was willing to drive 12 hours to support me on such a big day.”
The program’s family atmosphere fittingly has attracted four sibling combinations in the Louderback era, from four different parts of the country: Terri and Sherri Vitale (Bradenton, Fla.); Maggie and Liz Donohue (Sioux Falls, S.D.); Sarah Jane and Lauren Connelly (Oklahoma City); and the Las Vegas natives, twins Catrina and Christian Thompson. The Donohues played alongside the Connelly sisters in 2003, while the Thompsons later overlapped with the Connellys. Those Donohue-Connelly and Connelly-Thompson dual duos marked the first times in Notre Dame athletics history that multiple sister combinations played for an Irish team during the same season.
With nearly four decades of coaching experience in the bank, Louderback easily could have scaled back his on-site recruiting. To the contrary, the Notre Dame coach is a regular at various USTA youth tournaments. Such a commitment relates to Louderback placing a priority on recruiting and developing United States-based players.
“Jay knows all of the American kids and is dedicated to homegrown tennis. He won’t take any shortcuts to sacrifice those values,” says brother Brad, the current head men’s tennis coach at Wichita State, after earlier stints with the Illinois men and with the women’s team at his alma mater, Oklahoma State.
Smart Scheduling and Recruiting
Louderback’s initial recruiting approach, through most of the 1990s, had been to sign players who projected as strong competitors for the indoor/winter season. Many of these hard hitters produced great results, until the action shifted outside where the team at times struggled living up to its potential at the NCAAs.
“With a shift in recruiting focus, we started adding players with more of an all-around game, ones who would fare better outdoors,” says Louderback. “We then might have struggled more indoors, but it was the right direction to take the program.”
The corresponding adjustment in scheduling philosophy involved simply playing outdoor events earlier in the season. That goal meant heading south — not only during spring break, but also periodically in the weeks that followed until things warmed up back home. Some years have included an Easter-time trip to Texas A&M or Baylor, along with midweek swings to Virginia, North Carolina or Tennessee.
“Jay is a smart coach who prepares his team by building towards that final, biggest tournament, the NCAA Championships,” says former Notre Dame assistant Elizabeth Schmidt, now the head coach at Rice.
“He recruits athletes who can play in any conditions, and he gets them outside as soon as he can. Jay recruits and schedules smartly — those are some of the many things I learned from him.”
Schmidt and others have gained an appreciation for the priority Louderback places on playing a match near the hometown of every player at least once during her four-year career.
“My sophomore year, we played Clemson, close to my hometown of Greer, South Carolina,” notes Kelly Zalinski Riely. “It was so fun to have my team practice at my home club, attend Mass at my church and have dinner at our home with my family. I’ll be forever grateful to Jay for placing an importance on personal touches like that.”
One of Louderback’s earlier elite players points to the coach’s proper pacing of his team.
“Jay has great appreciation for balance in a student-athlete’s college experience,” says the former Wendy Crabtree. “He worked us extremely hard, but he also understood the need for rest, extra time to focus on academics or for doing something fun as a team off-court. Every player looked forward to that special experience of playing near her hometown — it merged our past with our current tennis family.”
A Low-Key and Fierce Competitor
Aside from a couple early years when he misguidedly tried being “a yeller and a screamer,” Louderback generally exudes a calm demeanor on the court. That appearance of composure has masked a burning competitiveness, a trait clearly handed down by his father J.C.
Two of Louderback’s closest confidants within the coaching fraternity — Smarr and Bayliss, the duo that urged him to apply at Notre Dame — certainly are qualified to lend their insight. Smarr retired at Rice in 2012 as the winningest men’s tennis coach in Division I history (873-344), with earlier stints at South Carolina and Colorado. When Bayliss retired in 2013, his 765 career wins placed him fifth on that list.
“Jay connects with people and makes them want to be around him. He’s the same way, win or lose — with great sportsmanship,” says Smarr, now serving as a volunteer assistant at Francis Marion, in Florence, S.C.
“You can be a nice guy but also a fierce competitor, and that’s certainly the case with Jay. Some coaches are rah-rah guys, but they are all over the place. Jay is level-headed, does not panic and handles everything in proper perspective by not putting a lot of pressure on his players. That helps him win a lot.”
Bayliss — whose 44 years as a head coach included stints at MIT and Navy before 26 seasons at Notre Dame — utilizes an endearing term for coaches with Louderback’s personality traits.
“Jay is a low-maintenance coach, in every positive sense,” says Bayliss. “He is easy to get along with. He rarely talks about himself, unless it’s in a self-deprecating way. It always was easy sharing the tennis facilities with him and his teams.
“He also keeps such an understated presence on the sidelines, which is so helpful in the women’s game. Many coaches jump from court to court and show way too much emotion. Jay’s style has a calming effect on players and gives them confidence in trying situations.”
The way Smarr sees it, former Notre Dame athletics director Dick Rosenthal was right on point when he hired Bayliss and Louderback during the late 1980s.
“You will not find two more ethical coaches than Bobby Bayliss and Jay Louderback,” Smarr says. “I’ve been around this game nearly 45 years and you are not going to find better quality people. They are good as gold.”
Motivating Through Personal Connection
Sometimes a seemingly minor, personal touch can go a long way in developing that bond between coach and student-athlete.
“Jay’s players compete hard for him because they know he cares about them, and they reciprocally care so much about him. It’s as simple as that,” says Schmidt, who witnessed such interaction during two seasons as a Notre Dame assistant.
Varnum encountered what was destined to be a very forgettable experience during her sophomore season at a meet in Wisconsin. She somehow left her racquet bag back on campus. After hearing the news, Louderback calmly clarified the type of racquet and headed off to a local tennis shop in Madison. Within half an hour, the veteran coach had returned with an exact replica, correct grip size and all.
“Jay just unwrapped the racquet, placed it in my hands and walked away,” says Varnum Bucolo, still amazed at that memory. “He knew I felt bad, and he didn’t make me feel worse. I have never wanted to play so hard for a coach — and, yes, I ended up having a great tournament.”
Louderback of course has been firm with his players, when warranted. “Kids need to know that you are going to be fair about discipline and, when done fairly, it usually leads to the desired results,” he says. “Some coaches lay into their players all the time, for no reason. All that does is make them not enjoy playing.”
On the flip side of needed discipline, Louderback’s loyalty and support have provided a huge boost over the years. “Jay always defends his players and you know he has your back, which makes you much more relaxed on the court,” says Catrina Thompson.
Adds Bucolo: “On Jay’s team, you are part of his family. He not only taught us technique and strategy, he influenced our fight and behavior on the court. His loyalty and presence made me want to fight harder, to go that extra mile for Jay.”
Of course, there have been plenty of instances when the various components of Louderback’s on-court personae collided to produce defining moments. “Jay is able to balance kindness with an ability to light a fire under you when needed,” says Holyn Lord Koch, one of the program’s top players during the 1990s.
In the midst of Lord’s freshman season, she had been on a win streak before hitting a snag against a very beatable opponent. Louderback quickly snapped her back into focus, demanding that she “stop playing like you are afraid to lose and start playing to win,” she vividly recalls.
“It was exactly what I needed to hear. Jay sees how best to motivate players at different times. He deserved credit for that win more than I did.”
Smarr perhaps sums it up best: “Players don’t play hard all the time for coaches who aren’t doing the right things and pushing the right buttons. So there are reasons Jay’s players play so hard for him.”
Team scoring in college tennis dual meets involves three doubles matches, followed by six in singles. The team that wins the doubles is awarded one point, while each singles match produces a one-point value. The first team to four points wins the dual meet. Simple math shows that one doubles match does not carry the same value as one singles match. A team can lose the doubles point yet still come back to win the meet overall, though it’s not easy.
Nonetheless, many collegiate coaches eschew focusing too much on doubles. Instead, they put all their eggs in the singles basket. Their rationale is simple: Recruit and develop strong singles players, and the dual meets will play out in your favor. These coaches count on superior talent and athleticism leading to four or more singles wins. If that raw talent also produces some doubles points, that’s even better.
As you might expect, Louderback comes from another school of thought.
“I’ve prided myself on working hard to develop good doubles,” he says. “If we can go into singles up 1-0, it’s a huge advantage.”
During Notre Dame’s historic 2006 season, led by the doubles tandem of Catrina and Christian Thompson, the Irish rose as high as No. 2 in the national rankings and sported a 27-1 record entering an NCAA quarterfinal match versus Miami. For the only time all season, Notre Dame lost the doubles point, and the Hurricanes ultimately advanced.
Speaking of the Thompson twins, their classic excellence on the doubles court did not go unnoticed among the Notre Dame men’s tennis operation.
“Bobby Bayliss always would claim that our women’s team would take the doubles point from the Notre Dame men,” says Schmidt. “He’d say Catrina and Christian should come to the men’s practice and play doubles against them, to show them how it’s done.”
Bayliss notes that women’s doubles feature a more patient style, with longer rallies, as opposed to the explosive action on the men’s side. As a player, Louderback had been a product of that more power-based game.
“Jay was a serve and volleyer, so this patient approach was something he had to learn–it conflicted with his instincts,” says Bayliss. “Jay’s doubles teams are very disciplined and move at the net in calculated fashion. He has taught them to move in tandem and change formations. You can appreciate how hard they have worked to gain insight into when to poach and when to fake.”
Liz Barker Balanis, Louderback’s second assistant coach, points out that this focus on doubles occurs before recruits are even signed: “Jay recruits for doubles very well, whereas many coaches will just look at singles results and go right down the line.”
Barker and Louderback often would practice against their top doubles duo, the scrappy, ultra-competitive Dasso and the hard-hitting veteran lefty Hall, who reached the 1999 NCAA doubles quarterfinals en route to All-America status. A few years later, it was Dasso serving as Louderback’s assistant, with the two coaches taking the court to battle the Thompsons.
“Jay and I lost to Michelle and Jen a lot, so I guess he traded up in assistants with Michelle,” jokes the current Liz Balanis.
In a funny sort of “if you can’t beat her, (have her) join you” twist, Louderback enjoyed Dasso’s continued dominance in the coaches-versus-players doubles showdowns — although in the era of the Thompsons she was on the side of the coaching staff.
“My sister and I had been ranked as high as No. 1 in doubles, yet in all those times we played against Jay and Michelle we won only one set and it was very close. Jay’s volleys are incredible,” says Christian Thompson.
The Louderback doubles influence has branched out to various programs, especially those with coaching staffs featuring former Notre Dame players or assistants.
“Notre Dame women’s doubles is in a league of its own, because Jay puts such a premium on it and works extensively on doubles during practice,” says Schmidt. “He recruits all-court players and values an attacking style.
“Jay knows you have to win the doubles point in order to make a deep postseason run. His doubles players are aggressive, know how to volley and build well off each other. They use a lot of chip returns and play the short angles. Jay’s doubles approach truly is an art form.”
The 2008 tandem of Oklahoma natives Buck and Tefft reached the NCAA semifinals, the first Notre Dame doubles team ever to advance that far. The previous November, the duo won the ITA National Indoor title.
Notre Dame doubles teams have combined to earn All-America honors 10 times since 1996, starting with Crabtree and Tholen — and most recently Frilling and Mathews in 2012. The Thompson sisters were doubles All-Americans from 2005-07, while Hall combined with Gates (’98) and Dasso (’99) as All-America doubles duos. Dasso closed her career in 2001 with another All-America doubles season, playing with Varnum, and Frilling’s All-America doubles seasons also included playing with Tefft (’09) and Krisik (’10).
The Thompson sisters now are coaches themselves — Christian at Denver, and Catrina as an assistant with the Irish. Louderback’s proven doubles drills are at the cornerstone of their own coaching today.
“Starting with the fall of our freshman year, Jay and Michelle really worked on sharpening our volley technique and doubles formations,” says Catrina. “We focused on high percentage doubles: making a high percentage of first serves, returns and first volleys. It was a great opportunity to compete against the best at No. 1 doubles. It helped our confidence, knowing the belief Jay had in us.”
There even were times when Louderback experimented with splitting up the Thompsons as a doubles pair. Such a breakup might have been a big gamble, as the sisters had wondered about coming to Notre Dame in the first place because university policy dictated that freshman siblings could not room together.
“Many coaches shy away from changing doubles combinations, for fear of upsetting egos,” says Bayliss. “Jay has benefitted from having so many good doubles players and he is not afraid to be creative–and that’s how effective doubles often are produced. He also adopts certain strategies that are tailored well for specific players.”
We’re Talking ’bout Practice
Certain coaches prefer the game day atmosphere to the daily practice grind. Louderback has evolved along that continuum.
“Until 10 years ago, I enjoyed matches much more than practice,” says the 14-time conference coach of the year. “I still like matches but I’ve really come to enjoy our practices so much more. It’s not like I’m any less competitive — but the teaching aspect, with this age group and with such quality individuals, is something I’ve really come to appreciate.”
Former players convey a similar sense of gratitude for their coach’s extra effort in the preparation phases.
“The words consistent and reliable really apply to Jay. He was always there if we needed extra work on something,” says Varnum Bucolo. “Jay was able to detect our best personal qualities, refine them, and then make us all even better players.”
Christian Thompson points out that Louderback always has been a true hands-on coach who never missed a day of practice during her career: “Jay always brought amazing energy to practice and it got us fired up. I always respected Jay’s opinion and direction. I knew he was there to produce the best players for his team.”
Some coaches invariably can become too obsessed with the practice regimen. It’s one thing for team members to endure intense practices, but entirely another issue if they rarely enjoy the process.
“We worked so hard, sometimes it felt like that’s all we did, but Jay’s sense of humor made everything more fun,” says Lauren Connelly Creevey, who played three seasons (2003-05) alongside her sister Sarah Jane.
“Jay always made sure to add laughs and jokes throughout each practice. Because of those lighthearted moments, practice was by far my favorite part of the day. I was often overwhelmed with tests and studying, but at practice I could escape and enjoy the unique bond that our team and Jay had with each other.”
Sister-Like Bonds for Bailey and Kali
Louderback looks back with special fondness on one six-year stretch, spanning the 2005-10 seasons. That period included four years with his daughter Bailey on the team and four with niece Kali Krisik on the Irish squad — plus two super-bonus seasons, 2007 and ’08, when the cousins were teammates.
Bailey and Kali already had been extremely close. Neither has a sister, but they earlier had developed a sister-like bond in 2003-04, when Bailey lived with the Krisik family in Arkansas City.
After that time in Kansas, following her senior year at South Bend’s Penn High School, Bailey returned home to attend Notre Dame and play for her dad’s team. Her father had been at Notre Dame for 15 years, but he was about to experience the university in an entirely new way: as a Notre Dame parent.
“I gained a new level of perspective and appreciation for things at the university–learning more about classes, professors, dorm life and in general how things work,” says Louderback.
“I had never attended Freshman Orientation — it was so informative and helpful for relating better to what the parents of our players go through with their children at Notre Dame. I even attended graduation for the first time and that was amazing as well.”
From her dad’s perspective, Bailey Louderback has come to appreciate the value of her Notre Dame experience more and more with each passing year. But from her viewpoint, it was pretty special all along.
“My dad was always great at separating the roles of my coach and father. When I was young, even if I had a terrible day on the court, we ended every practice with a high five. We would discuss tennis some on the car ride home, but once we were home that was it,” says the appreciative, now 28-year-old daughter.
“Playing for him in college, I realized he had the same approach with all his players. He never got hung up on a loss or bad practice. He would say what needed to be said and move on. I believe he played the role of father and coach for all of us.”
Twenty-five years after having coached his sister at Wichita State, Jay Louderback found himself coaching Jan’s daughter at Notre Dame.
Krisik — considered by Jay to be “like a second daughter” — twice had won the Kansas Class 5A state singles title and was a three-time champ on the ITA circuit. At Notre Dame, she continued to excel on the court but also made her mark beyond tennis.
Krisik went 99-25 in singles play and 135-35 in doubles for a combined career record of 235-60. Only Tefft (265) and Dasso (248) have accumulated more victories in the nearly 30-year history of Notre Dame women’s tennis. When it comes to combined career win percentage, Krisik stands alone after winning at nearly an 80 percent clip (.797). As a senior in 2010, she and doubles partner Frilling earned a final No. 3 national ranking, cementing their status as All-Americans.
Krisik was a rare double honoree in 2010, receiving the Byron Kanaley Award along with Notre Dame’s award for community service excellence.
“Kali did not always love Notre Dame at first, but by the end she did not want to leave such a wonderful place,” says mom Jan Krisik.
“As parents, my husband Joe and I saw how Notre Dame changed Kali for the better. She developed such a great sense of compassion and appreciation for community service. Jay and his staff were part of that, helping instill so many important values.”
Krisik fittingly has followed in the footsteps of her uncle, serving the past three years as an assistant women’s tennis coach at Tulsa.
“Jay provided the inspiration and tools to succeed on the court and in life,” she says. “He created a fun yet disciplined environment. Jay saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. That’s why he is so successful. He sees the best in everybody and holds them to a high standard.
“Because of my uncle, I became a college coach. I hope to impact players’ lives similar to the way he impacted mine.” (She’s now a graduate student in Ohio University’s respected sports management program.)
Lest she be forgotten amidst this family love fest, Denise Louderback has filled an important role behind the scenes, for the better part of four decades. “Denise always has been so supportive of all of Jay’s teams, and Bailey is such a cool young lady — she is the perfect blend of Jay and Denise,” says Dasso.
Zalinski fondly remembers Denise’s special way of supporting the team through “baking so many awesome desserts,” and she vividly recalls a young Bailey cheering them on — “although I still picture her as a little girl.”
For the Louderback clan, it seems the more things change, the more they truly stay the same.
Among the National Elite
After serving notice throughout the 1990s, Notre Dame women’s tennis soared to new heights in the new century. The start of the decade featured the end of Dasso’s stellar career. The Illinois native, who had earned 1999 singles All-America honors, repeated that honor in 2001, after becoming the first Notre Dame player to reach the NCAA semifinals. She earlier had been a semifinalist in three 2000-01 collegiate grand slam events and was honored with the ITA National Senior Player of the Year award.
Led by Dasso, on a team with her All-America doubles partner Varnum, Notre Dame rose to No. 5 in the 2001 national rankings — rarified air for a northern-based collegiate tennis program. Five years later in 2006, Notre Dame peeked at No. 2 en route a 27-2 final record and an appearance in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Thompson sisters led the team to the quarterfinals again in 2007, until the Irish fell to eventual champion Georgia Tech.
Plenty more historic team accomplishments unfolded at the end of the decade, as Notre Dame impressively played in the NCAA semifinal round to cap the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The program’s combined record in dual meets during that two-year span was 54-9.
Mathews, only a freshman, outlasted Csilla Borsanyi in No. 4 singles to deliver Notre Dame’s 4-3 quarterfinal win over Baylor, in 2009 NCAA action at College Station, Texas. Tefft earlier posted a big win at No. 1 singles, as did Kristen Rafael at No. 6. Notre Dame had claimed the pivotal doubles point, with victories by Tefft/Frilling and Mathews/Colleen Rielley.
A 4-2 semifinal loss to California did little to dampen the lingering special memories from that 2009 campaign.
The juniors in 2009 — Cosmina Ciobanu, Krisik and Rielley — had entered Notre Dame ranked among the nation’s top-five recruiting classes, while freshmen Frilling and Mathews had been tabbed No. 2. Frilling, playing No. 2 singles, went on to earn All-America doubles honors alongside Tefft. Ciobanu (at No. 2) and Krisik (No. 5) rounded out the singles lineup during that historic 2009 season, with that duo also forming the No. 2 doubles pairing.
Julia Scaringe Sell — Notre Dame’s assistant at the time and now head coach at LSU — vividly recalls a 2009 quarterfinal moment, an incident both intense and humorous.
Baylor had been on a roll, knocking off Stanford in the round of 16, and its match with the Irish carried late into the night due to a power failure. Tensions were high, when a crucial late call went against Mathews. The official appeared to have made a mistake costly to the Irish, and Louderback conveyed his disagreement loud and clear.
“Jay went absolutely nuts,” says Sell. “He is mild-mannered, but if Jay is going to get mad he has no problem voicing his displeasure. Since he knows the rule book so well, it was always fun to watch.”
At one point, Louderback slammed his hat on a chair — with a metal-on-metal sound startling all in earshot.
“The entire arena went silent,” says Sell. “I was sitting with Shannon, having a good laugh at it all. Jay’s reaction was a huge moment in that third set, providing some comic relief. Shannon went on to win, sending us to our first semifinal.”
One year later, Notre Dame had to replace the graduated Tefft, the 2009 ITA Senior Player of the Year. The 2010 Irish still featured their new No. 1 Frilling, along with seniors Ciobanu, Krisik and Rielley.
Notre Dame took care of Tennessee in the 2010 NCAA quarterfinals, winning 4-2 in Athens, Ga. The Irish won at the top two singles spots (Frilling and Mathews) along with wins by Ciobanu and Krisik at Nos. 4 and 5. Newcomer McGaffigan was leading at No. 3 singles when the team win was clinched.
Frilling — who earned 2010 All-America singles honors and teamed with Krisik in doubles — had delivered a huge win by outlasting 11th-ranked Caitlin Whoriskey of Tennessee. The other doubles pairings in that repeat NCAA semifinal run included Ciobanu/Mathews and McGaffigan/Rafael. Ciobanu went on to join Crabtree and Hall as the program’s third CoSIDA Academic All-American.
One year earlier, Louderback had delivered his comic-relief outburst in the waning moments against Baylor. In 2010, after the NCAA semifinal loss to Stanford, his emotions were just as raw, but distinctly different.
“That season had been a tougher road, and the loss to Stanford was the final match for a very special class,” says Sell, in reference to Krisik, Ciobanu and Rielley.
Minutes after the season-ending point, Louderback called the players over so he could address the team. He wanted to get the words out. But he just couldn’t.
“Jay became so choked up, and I could see in his eyes that he needed me to finish talking,” says Sell, the image still firmly ingrained in her memory.
“You don’t see Jay often get emotional in that way, and I was just as shocked as the girls. That was one of the moments where you saw how much he cared. I won’t say that there were tears–but maybe a light mist that came over the eyes.”
A Growing Coaching Tree
Two former Louderback players — Dasso (Illinois) and Christian Thompson (Denver) — along with recent assistants Sell (LSU) and Schmidt (Rice) all now are head coaches on the Division I level. His niece Krisik is completing her third season as an assistant at Tulsa, while Catrina Thompson is Louderback’s current assistant with the Irish.
The six previous assistants in Louderback’s 25-year Notre Dame career all have been referenced earlier: McNamara (’90-’96), Barker (’97-’01), Dasso (’02-’06), Schmidt (’07-’08), Scaringe (’09-’11) and Tefft (’12-’13). McNamara has remained in Notre Dame athletics, currently serving as an assistant athletics director. Liz Barker Balanis, married to Notre Dame assistant men’s basketball coach Rod Balanis, still is active as a local tennis coach while raising her three young sons.
“All of my assistants have been a great part of this program,” says Louderback. “They each brought something a little bit different, and they all have been very hard workers with a great sense of loyalty. I’ve had complete trust working with all of them — that’s a key factor to coaching staff success.”
Since ending her playing career in 2001, Dasso has undergone two major transitions: from player to assistant, and then on to head coach. Louderback helped guide her along both journeys.
“Jay always is willing to listen or give advice with any coaching questions and has been very instrumental in the adjustments I’ve had to make,” says Dasso. “I had a great passion for getting into coaching, and Jay helped harness that passion by directing me in the correct ways. He has such a great sense of humor, so it never seemed like work — other than those scrapbooks he has his assistants assemble. Cutting and pasting is not my forte.”
Schmidt’s own chance to lead a program came two years later, but her brief time at Notre Dame proved to be invaluable.
“The players would light up whenever Jay played doubles in practice, and that’s something I do with my own team,” says Schmidt. “When the head coach participates, it takes practice to another level. Jay playing made the energy different, because he is such a fierce competitor.”
After moving on to her head coaching position at Rice, Schmidt quickly realized what she essentially already knew: Louderback had done a stellar job preparing her.
“I saw first-hand how much Jay loves the game and how deeply he cares for his players,” says the current Owl head coach. “I learned to be fair with players, understanding that mistakes happen but that there also are consequences. Jay would always listen and then make a fair, honest decision.”
Strong bonds between a head coach and assistant are more noteworthy when that loyalty continues in the future, even when working for competing schools. A few years ago, after Schmidt had returned to Rice, she and Louderback were recruiting at the same junior tennis event — sitting next to each other, watching high school prospect Kim Anicete.
“Jay told me I needed to recruit Kim, because she was a good athlete and strong competitor. He freely gave me advice and helped me. Many coaches would not do that,” says Schmidt.
It turns out, Louderback had a great eye for talent and matching that talent with the right coach and program. Anicete, now a senior, is the fourth-winningest player in Rice history.
Sell — whose sister Sarah Scaringe played for Notre Dame from 1997-2001 — similarly parlayed her experience with the Irish into becoming a Division I head coach. Being around Louderback for three seasons clearly did one thing: It centered her.
“Jay has a great sense of balance between work and life, always keeping everything in perspective,” says the current LSU coach. “A head coach carries the weight of the program and you have to be `on’ 24 hours a day. Jay handled that stress exceptionally well and taught me that you have to take time for yourself–it simply makes you a better coach.”
Several of the top all-around players in Notre Dame history — Dasso, Tefft and the Thompsons — have transitioned into coaching. Both of the twins say the intense practice atmosphere cultivated during their college careers inspired them.
“Jay and Michelle recognized how a competitive environment with the coaches practicing would motivate and inspire the players,” says Christian Thompson, the current Denver head coach. “My own players appreciate and enjoy when my assistant and I play hard, providing a fun, competitive situation.”
Louderback’s intensity as a practice participant on the court often was belied by his humor off of it. Those hijinks include a certain harmless prank that he has pulled on his assistants over the years.
The catchy Billy Preston funk-soul song “Will It Go Round In Circles” could serve as the theme song for Louderback’s trademark prank. The team often travels via a pair of minivans, with the head coach driving the lead vehicle and the assistant’s van following behind. Whether it’s in a traffic-circle roundabout or a larger parking lot, Louderback the jokester has been known to drive around in circles, until the assistant coach catches on to the prank.
The prevailing question remains: How many circles does it take to catch on? Three? Four? Certainly not five. Unsolicited, three former assistants all rehashed their experiences with the prank.
Said Barker: “It happened to me at one of those circles on campus, picking up the players at the dorms. I think I went around four times.”
Said Dasso: “It was on a road trip and we were circling a cul-de-sac. Jay was messing with me to see how long until I noticed. In hindsight, I was proud for going around only three times.”
Said Schmidt: “We were driving around in circles in a parking lot. I think when Michelle got pranked, she went around more times than me — but she might argue that one.”
Assistant coaches’ careers often are measured by conference titles and NCAA bids they help their teams achieve or by how many All-Americans they coach. At Notre Dame, in the Louderback era, you can add another measuring stick. Really, be honest now, how many circles until you caught on?
A Lifelong Student of the Game
Louderback naturally is thankful to those in the profession who have helped him along the way. The recently-retired Smarr “always has been a great resource at seeing the big picture,” while Indiana’s Loring similarly has been a fountain of knowledge, in addition to helping the Notre Dame coach get involved with various ITA and NCAA initiatives.
At the end of the day, at least most days, Louderback typically reaches out to the same fellow coach. It’s the person whose phone number is at the top of his speed-dial listing. It’s the doubles partner he fought with so often when they were young, yet for the past four decades they have been great friends and confidants. It’s his brother Brad, another key member of the Louderback tennis family.
“Brad and I form a great support system,” says Jay. “Within two minutes, Brad usually knows exactly the situation that I’m discussing and is able to talk about it. Being fellow coaches has made us even closer.”
Brad — the outwardly more intense of the two, according to Jay — voices similar appreciation for this support system. He also claims to know some secrets for ways to rattle his brother, but he isn’t telling.
“Jay definitely is a cool cat–the man simply does not get rattled. I know what can get under his skin, but I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag,” he says.
Awesome Alumni Network
The Notre Dame women’s tennis alumni network is continually expanding, as former players begin to start their own families, raising young fans of the sport and of their alma mater.
Zalinski — who recently moved to Raleigh, N.C., with husband/fellow Notre Dame alum Tim Riely, plus their two young children — is excited to be living within the core footprint of the Atlantic Coast Conference. She and her family came to support the Irish women’s tennis team twice in 2014.
“It was very surreal to watch my kids cheer on the team. But it also reinforced how I am so blessed for having Jay as my coach and for having attended my dream school,” says Zalinski Riely.
Lauren Connelly Creevey recently relocated to South Bend with her husband and their own two youngsters. She is a regular face at Notre Dame home tennis events, and two-year-old son Carson has become a big fan.
“Carson absolutely loves `Coach Jay,’ as he calls him. He cheers on the girls but is more excited to see Jay,” says Connelly Creevey. “My son looks up to Jay and acts like he is a celebrity. Jay is so great with Carson, constantly encouraging his love for sports.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to support the team, but also to share my wonderful experience with my husband and children. I pray that my kids will be blessed with such a supportive and motivating coach and mentor like Jay was to me.”
The older guard naturally has an even deeper-seated relationship with the Irish head coach and the program he has molded. Both Vitale sisters — as their dad often reminds viewers — married fellow Notre Dame student-athletes: Terri is wed to lacrosse alum Christopher Sforzo, and Sherri to former quarterback Thomas Krug. Their father has evolved into a self-admitted Notre Dame super-fan while, on the more serious side, combining with wife Lorraine to sponsor the Dick Vitale Family Scholarship. That financial aid is presented to a Notre Dame student who participates on a non-scholarship basis in athletics or another extra-curricular activity.
Terri Vitale’s 11-year-old daughter Sydney is an avid tennis player, and the family sponsors the Dick Vitale Intercollegiate Clay Court Classic, in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. The Notre Dame women’s team is a regular participant at that event, with the Vitale family typically serving as the team’s host.
The Notre Dame women’s tennis family also includes that impressive group of assistant coaches. Even those who have left coaching saw their lives enriched from working with Louderback. McNamara — admittedly “amazed” at her good fortune from working the past 17 years in Notre Dame athletics administration–has viewed Louderback’s program from a different perspective.
“As an administrator, I appreciate the great qualities Jay brings to the profession,” says McNamara, whose current duties include serving as the sport administrator for the Notre Dame fencing program.
“Jay and I are great friends, and I owe my Notre Dame experience, master’s degree and career in athletics administration largely to him.”
If Louderback had not hired Barker back in 1998, her current life clearly would be much different. Still tied closely to the extended Notre Dame athletics family as the wife of an Irish assistant men’s basketball coach, her days are never dull, keeping up with three spirited little boys. Her youngest, Teddy, has great affection for the man he knows simply as “Coach Jay” (similar to Carson Creevey) — and all three boys fondly know Jay’s wife Denise by the nickname “Foo-Foo,” because she used to regularly tell them that classic Little Bunny story.
When Louderback turns 60 this summer, he is sure to hear plenty of comments about his youthful exuberance. When retirement does come calling, some day, the longtime coach has a dream avocation — an interesting twist, as it were, for being “put out to pasture.”
A lifelong, ardent fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team — “Let’s call it what it is, he’s obsessive,” says Schmidt — Louderback would feel as if he had died and gone to heaven if one day he could hang out at the ballpark for a living.
“My dream for when I retire always has been to work the Busch Stadium grounds at Cardinal games, to help with the grounds-keeping and tend to the infield,” says Louderback, who has been known to see the Cardinals play in Chicago on a Sunday and in Milwaukee the next day.
Louderback — who counts catcher Yadier Molina among his favorite all-time Cardinals — shares his love of baseball with brother Brad, and many of their texts involve updates from St. Louis games. Those who root for a rival team sometimes receive similar texts.
“Let’s just say Jay enjoys taunting me. I am a sad, loyal Chicago Cubs fan,” says Dasso.
Beyond his love for the Cardinals and Wichita State Shocker basketball, Louderback also is a big fan of country music, notably Garth Brooks and the Zac Brown Band. “Jay may like country, but he has the worst voice signing along that I’ve ever heard,” says Bayliss, who shared an office with Louderback for several years.
Staying Near the Top
Louderback’s program remains on track for returning to the national top tier — as the Irish did back in 2009 and ’10 during those NCAA semifinal seasons. A perennial top-25 program, Notre Dame will receive another big boost with the addition of Brooke Broda (West Chester, Ohio) and Allison Miller (Norcross, Ga.) for 2014-15. Broda (10th) and Miller (22nd), both lefthanders, currently are listed among the nation’s top 25 high school seniors, based on computerized ratings. Notre Dame’s signees combine to rank among the top five recruiting classes in the nation.
The move to the ACC clearly has taken Notre Dame women’s tennis to another level, in schedule strength plus improved recruiting inroads into the Middle Atlantic and southeastern states. Upwards of eight ACC women’s tennis teams regularly rank among the national top 25.
With his 26th Notre Dame season on the horizon, Louderback has plenty of past experience to draw upon.
Qualifying as a classic “takes one to know one” comment, Bayliss notes that his former officemate is an old-school coach, preferring to stick with tried-and-true methods, rather than changing when any trend pops up: “Jay first of all is a great teacher. He could be equally comfortable coaching basketball, baseball or another sport. Most are tennis-only and would not be successful coaching another sport. Jay is a special breed.”
Current Notre Dame men’s tennis head coach Ryan Sachire — a former standout player with the Irish and the program’s assistant for seven years — has learned from the pair of old-school coaches, Bayliss and Louderback.
“Jay has the unique ability to combine intense passion for winning with true humility and a tremendous sense of humor,” says Sachire. “He arms his players with the tools and perspective needed to be ultra-successful on the court and in the classroom. I hope to one day emulate his type of success.”
Louderback’s 25-year anniversary at Notre Dame has been noteworthy on a number of levels. “I marvel at how Jay has been surrounded by so many women for so many years without losing his mind,” says Nina Vaughan Mehigan.
“This is truly a man’s man we’re talking about here. At one point, some of us had to break it to him that the flowers he had been sending Denise over the years were carnations, not roses as he had previously thought.”
By his own estimation, Louderback always has been best suited for coaching on the collegiate level.
“I enjoy working with kids this age, because there are a lot of things you can help them with outside of tennis to prepare for when they are done with college,” he says. “College players still are impressionable and have great personalities. You are able to talk to them when they actually make sense. I love working on strategy and team concepts. College coaching is a great fit for my personality.”
Terri Vitale was there on day one and has looked on with admiration over the 25 years. “Jay and Notre Dame have been a perfect fit — they mirror each other’s values,” she says. “We all are better people because we had the opportunity to play for Jay.”
Adds Crabtree: “I always look forward to seeing Jay when visiting Notre Dame. I’m amazed that he looks exactly the same and can recall every detail of any match I ever played — that always cracks me up.”
As the sister of a former Notre Dame tennis player, Sell had a pre-existing appreciation for the university and its tennis program. A couple years under the Golden Dome brought that appreciation into finer focus.
“Part of what makes Notre Dame so special is the connection students form to the school, and Jay always has shared that love and passion for Notre Dame,” says the current LSU coach. “Jay’s passion for what the school stands for is a huge part of what has made the program so successful.”
Just as Dick Vitale evolved into a diehard Notre Dame fan through family ties, Brad Louderback now counts himself as a big supporter of all things Fighting Irish. After all, it’s the school that employs his hero and his best friend — his brother.
“Jay always has shown the same temperament, but he has grown as his program has grown, becoming a better coach each year while learning more about things inside and outside of tennis,” says Brad.
“As great as Jay has been for Notre Dame, the university has been great for him also. Really, that’s how it should be. My brother Jay is a great family guy, and Notre Dame is a wonderful family.”
With the perspective of time, it’s interesting to ponder the alternative to that crucial choice that Jay Louderback made as an 11-year-old: What if the Ark City youngster had picked baseball over tennis, way back in the summer of 1965?
How different would his life be now? Even more mind-blowing: Imagine all of the players over the years who have been impacted so positively by Louderback’s coaching. Now, remove all those experiences and memories from those individual life stories.
Louderback took the tennis path. He still can cling to his beloved St. Louis Cardinals to get that baseball fix.
As for members of the Notre Dame tennis family? They are glad — make that eternally grateful — that he opted for the racquet and the yellow bouncy balls.
Other Pete LaFleur Profile Features For 2013-14
Brian Barnes: Building Notre Dame Women’s Swimming’s Foundation for Success (women’s swimming)
Randy Waldrum Era: A Success By Any Account (women’s soccer)
Bobby Clark: Teaching To Win, And Hurrying Slowly (men’s soccer)
Harry Shipp – Wandering Wizard of Notre Dame Soccer (men’s soccer)
Dougie Barnard – Truly One Of A Kind (men’s tennis)
Debbie Brown – A Volleyball Life: Then and Now (volleyball)
Tim Connelly – In For The Long Haul (women’s cross country)
Grant Van De Casteele – A Domer By Chance (men’s soccer)
Elizabeth Tucker – Accounting For Greatness (women’s soccer)
Bayliss to Sachire – Seemingly Seamless Transition (men’s tennis)
— ND —