TAMPA — Every now and then, Jesuit High tennis coach Joe Curtis evaluates his coaching career.
What direction is the program going? Are the athletes improving? What more can I do?
When these questions creep into his mind, a new group of student-athletes joins the program, eager to carry on a tradition of success that Curtis has maintained at Jesuit for the past 20 years.
It’s what keeps him coming back, year after year.
As tennis district tournaments begin today across the state, Jesuit will try to add to an illustrious streak under Curtis’ direction — the Tigers have won 19 district titles in 20 tournament appearances.
Jesuit has never missed the postseason with Curtis at the helm and the lone year the Tigers finished as the district runner-up, they avenged the loss by eliminating the champion in the region tournament a week later.
“I’m very proud of our record,” said Curtis, who played at Jefferson and was a walk-on at Florida State. “Tennis is a sport that does not have a lot of glamour. But next to Berkeley Prep volleyball or Brandon wrestling, it’s probably one of the best records in high school sports in the area. We’re doing something right.”
In the past two years, Jesuit has finished third in the state tournament. The Tigers have yet to win a state title under Curtis, but they have been a state runner-up seven times.
Early in his career, when he led the program to five straight state runner-up finishes, constantly falling short of that elusive state championship bothered Curtis, he said.
Over time, however, he found acceptance.
“Most of the kids we play against are home-schooled, academy-type kids that are on the court all day,” Curtis said. “We don’t get on court until after school. We can’t compete with that.”
Instead, Curtis prides himself in scheduling tough matches so the program remains among the state’s best, season after season. He prefers to keep a small roster, no more than eight players, to ensure everyone plays an important role.
“I wanted to change the whole outlook of the way things are in high school tennis,” he said. “I make a very difficult schedule. I want matches tight and competitive. If we lose a couple in the regular season and we’re better because of it, I’m fine with it. Some of my best teams, we don’t have a winning record during the regular season.”
In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, 11 of Jesuit’s 12 opponents during the regular season advanced to the region tournament.
In addition to coaching, Curtis also serves as chairman of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Tennis Advisory Committee.
During his two decades, he has helped produce a number of college players, namely former college champion Ryler DeHeart, who climbed to as high as No. 174 in the world on the ATP Tour.
“Years ago when I got here, they had a number of good players, but not a tennis expert coach, specific coach if you will, to help them get over the edge,” Curtis said.
Though winning his first state title would be a great way to close his coaching career, Curtis doesn’t see an end in sight.
“I’ve stopped worrying about it,” he said. “It would mean a lot. It would be an exclamation mark. But I would probably want to come back and win another.”