Cool head pays off for Nebraska tennis coach

Photo Head Coach Kerry McDermott is the winningest coach in Nebraska tennis history.

Story and photos by Ryan Penney, NewsNetNebraska

Husker fans are used to seeing a ranting football coach pacing the sideline at Memorial Stadium, or a red-faced basketball coach screaming at the Bob Devaney Sports Center. But neither can claim the number of wins that smiley Kerry McDermott has. For McDermott, coach of the men’s tennis team for 29 years, the smile doesn’t seem to ever fade.

Coach Mac has become the winningest coach in Husker tennis history with his upbeat style and his international reach. His team – often one the most globally diverse teams in all Nebraska sports – performs for the outgoing, fatherly coach. This year, six Germans share the courts with five Americans on the team, and McDermott has the help of assistant coach Joerg Barthel, a native of Friedrichsdorf,Germany. Barthel knows McDermott’s coaching style well, playing under him for four years. While Germany is the most popular country on this year’s team, plenty of other countries have helped McDermott reach over 300 victories in his career at UNL.

“[McDermott] is like a really good friend and I think I could rely on him anytime I need anything. He has really helped me in the four years I have been here,” said senior Calin Paar, a native of Munich, Germany.

Photo Paar practices his doubles play in preparation for a tough Big 12 road ahead.

Good friend might even be an understatement. When Paar’s family came to visit him, McDermott made sure they felt welcome. He helped them get a hotel and showed them choice spots to eat, helping them have a vacation to remember.

Foreign-born players are a key reason for the team’s success this season (14-6 in the spring), and many wonder if the Huskers could succeed with only Americans. But McDermott maintains that he uses his team’s winning record to woo more Americans. Three of his players hail from Nebraska, with the others are from Florida and Oklahoma. At times past, far more players have come from abroad.

“We are hoping to get more top Americans. With international kids they don’t care where they go, they just want the opportunity,” said McDermott. “Sometimes the American kids are a little more picky where they want to go.”

The coach has been able to attract players such as Thomas Blackwell, a freshman from Florida. But recruiting has been at times an uphill matter. Weather, the ability to play outdoors year-round, and a view that the Big 12 has been a middling tennis conference have hampered recruitment in the U.S. McDermott expects the move to the Big Ten will help.

Photo McDermott watches as Junior Drew Freeman, a Tulsa Oklahoma native, works on his serve.

Still, foreign recruiting is likely to remain a big part of McDermott’s game plan. One of the biggest reasons the Huskers have so many foreign players is because the team can get them. The Huskers can rely on assistant coach Barthel, who can speak to prospects in their own language. Well-connected in the German athletic community, he is a huge asset to the program, according to McDermott.

But the diverse nature of the program might still raise questions in Nebraska. Are Americans getting a fair shot at tennis-team slots and scholarships? Are Nebraskans, such a small group on the team, disadvantaged?

“People probably think I only recruit foreign kids and that is totally wrong. We are just going to make sure we can get the best tennis players we can with the four and a half scholarships,” argued the coach. “We are going after the best kids we can. We are getting more of the top American kids we can.”

McDermott doesn’t have an issue with a foreign-dominated squad, but do the players?

“When I first came, I had the attitude of why do all these Germans and foreign players get these scholarships?,” said senior co-captain Taylor Boney. “Looking at it now though, tennis is such a big sport outside the U.S., we are able to bring in these players that are quite frankly better than the talent in America. It is a way for us to be competitive with everyone else in the country.”

While it is a bit of a culture shock for guys like Boney to play with foreign players, it is even more of a change for the guys coming in. McDermott seems to understand that, but his evenhanded treatment draws praise from players on both sides of the Atlantic.

“[Coach McDermott has] such a great personality and character. I always feel motivated and pumped to play for him,” said Paar. “He puts so much energy in [to this team]. It makes me happy to win my match because it makes Coach McDermott happy.”

Recruiting contributed to the Huskers making their first NCAA tourney in 2010 for the first time in McDermott’s tenure. He also worked the players hard, though he never blew his cool.

“Freshman year we worked hard but we didn’t have that tough-nosed mindset to work through adversity. It was more of a social thing, winning to the team wasn’t a big issue,” said Boney, the co-captain. “Since then, we have made big strides to make something that is respected across the country.”

The hard work is paying off as the Huskers are currently ranked 39th in the nation. Only 40 teams make the NCAA tournament. The Huskers have begun to make a name for themselves in the NCAA.

Photo The Huskers hope to continue this seasons success with Baylor and Texas A&M being the Huskers next opponents.

“We hope to make it a habit [going to the tournament], we feel like we have found the right formula for winning” said McDermott.

Nebraska is commanding respect from tennis teams around the country.

“Feels good to walk in to somewhere and hear someone say, ‘O crap, here comes Nebraska,’” said Boney.

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