Dexter Pearcy is beginning his third season as head coach of the Greenwood High School tennis program, but there is no doubt in his mind as to who built and nurtured the program to its current level of excellence - the late Dr. Ken Hamilton who passed away earlier this summer. For more than a quarter century the Good Doctor lent his time and expertise to help hundreds of GHS student-athletes learn the game of tennis and develop their skills to compete against players from other schools, winning several conference and state championships along the way. And by the way, he never took a dime for his efforts. He was a true volunteer.
Coach Pearcy wasn't a tennis player growing up, but he benefitted greatly from working alongside Dr. Hamilton as the two men guided the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs from 2020-2022. Pearcy spent his first season as Hamilton's assistant, soaking up as much knowledge, wisdom, and court savvy as possible. Then the two men switched jobs as Pearcy made the transition to head coach and Hamilton began the slow process of stepping aside into retirement.
But somewhere during that process Dr. Hamilton received some unsettling health news, hastening his retirement from tennis and ultimately his departure from this world. But Pearcy and Hamilton were grateful for the time they had together with the last three cycles of GHS players, and Coach Pearcy knows his good friend is now in a much better place. Both men were members of Greenwood's First Baptist Church.
"I don't think we have enough time to go over all the accolades that he received in his career," said Pearcy in an interview earlier this month. "He accomplished so much and impacted so many lives. Most of us just dream of having that kind of influence in our careers. He was a unique individual in that regard.
"Obviously, we will have a hard time replacing his wealth of [tennis] knowledge. He's somebody who's going to be missed. Me and the kids talked about him often, and they shared their memories of him, so he's definitely still a part of our program, even though he's passed on," the coach added. "He gave everything he had to those kids, even when he wasn't feeling very good."
Hoping to fill some of the void in the wake of Dr. Hamilton's death, Pearcy will be assisted this year by Randy Magness, the father of Mackenzie Magness, a sophomore player on the team this season. "He's played tennis for over 25 years," said Pearcy. "He's given lessons and been around the game of tennis for a long time, so he brings a lot of knowledge." Following Dr. Hamilton's example, Magness will also be a volunteer coach.
"Coach Hamilton had answers to everything – a lot of answers about tennis and a lot of answers to things that happen in life," said Pearcy. "It's going to be different and I'm going to lean heavy on Randy this year to help. It's one thing to coach kids, but I don't have a lot of experience playing [tennis], so he will be able to relate to the kids in that regard really well. I'm definitely excited that Randy is part of the staff now. He works at Arvest Bank, and they have been really good to work with his schedule."
The conversation finally turned to the upcoming season and the elephant in the room, which is the newly refurbished tennis courts that still lacked fencing around the perimeter at the time of the interview. Work on installing the fence finally began in earnest last week and is now nearly complete. When finished, the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs will enjoy playing on one of the finest facilities in the 5A West conference. "It was a big commitment by our school system to get that done for our kids, and we're very appreciative," said the coach. However, lighting will not be installed at the new courts until next year.
In the meantime, another issue presented itself to further delay the start of the tennis season, and that's the extreme heat last week that forced the cancellation of many outdoor events across the state, with temperatures surpassing 100 degrees every day with heat indexes even higher. Greenwood athletics rescheduled all golf and tennis matches last week and delayed Friday's football game by an hour.
Regarding the construction delay, arrangements had already been made to move Greenwood's first home match to Ben Geren Park in Fort Smith. "It's not ideal," said Pearcy. "Obviously, we would like to hit the ground running when school starts, but our school worked out a deal with Ben Geren to practice up there and have our matches there. We've got two home matches in August and I'm hoping both of those won't have to be played at Ben Geren, but it's a possibility.
"A lot of our kids go to [Fort Smith] anyway because they host clinics and First Serve at Ben Geren and Creekmore Park. Some of the kids go to the athletic club, so if our kids are getting lessons or instruction in the off-season, they are at one of those venues," said Pearcy. Hopefully, the soon-to-be completed fencing at Greenwood’s home courts will solve that issue.
"We're [practicing] at Ben Geren right now," he continued. "We started on July 31st, so we've been at it a few weeks now. There's always significant progress when they're out there every day working and getting better. They're just trying to shake the rust off and get back into the swing of things." The players have been practicing four days a week, excluding Wednesdays, usually later in the day to escape some of the heat. "We've had to cancel [some] practices due to the heat," admitted the coach.
The new facilities, when finished, will feature five tennis courts and four pickle ball courts. There were six tennis courts previously, but Pearcy doesn't feel the loss of one court will have much impact his teams' matches. "We'll just shuffle things around a little bit. It won't affect us too much," he said. The coach also acknowledged the growing popularity of pickle ball across the country and said perhaps some P.E. classes might take advantage of the new courts as well.
Turning his attention to his players, Pearcy and Magness have 25 names on their roster, 14 girls and 11 boys, numbers that are consistent with those of the past. "That's pretty typical. There's usually a better turnout with the girls," he said, and the Lady Bulldogs are loaded with seniors, eight of them to go along with two juniors, three sophomores, and two freshmen.
Speaking of the GHS girls, those eight seniors include Lydiah Belue, Isabella King, Emma Wirth, Averi Abbott, Bailey Abbott, Maleah Cole, and Claire Roberts. The two juniors are Emma Koenigseder and Harper Berg. The three sophomores are Mackenzie Magness, Nicole Reaves, and Brianna Estopare. The squad’s two freshmen players are Azusena Garcia and Alivia Kittel.
As for his senior girls, Coach Pearcy said, “There’s not just numbers in that 12th grade group, but a lot of talent. So we’re going to lean on them a lot this year. “[Junior] Harper [Berg] has been a varsity player since ninth grade. She is a really good player and athlete. She and Lydiah [Belue] played doubles last year and finished second in our conference and came up just short of making it to the state tournament. Emma [Koenigseder] hasn’t played varsity yet, but she’s got a lot of potential. She’s got a lot of talent and is all in on tennis. I definitely expect her to compete for varsity time this year.”
Among the team’s younger ladies, only Mackenzie Magness has any previous experience playing high school tennis. Magness played on the junior varsity team last season, but Nicole Reaves, Brianna Estopare, Azusena Garcia, and Alivia Kittle are all knew to the GHS tennis program, said Pearcy. “I know Alivia took lessons from Coach Hamilton for a while, so she’s had that experience. The others are more inexperienced, so we will see how their games grow this season.”
The coach admitted that at the time of the interview – over two weeks ago – he still had decisions to make regarding the ranking of his players and who will play singles 1-2 and which players will pair for doubles duty. “I expect Bella King, Emma Wirth, Lydiah and Harper to earn a varsity position. They’ve been varsity players and I don’t expect that to change.
“If that’s the case, that only leaves two varsity spots, and we’ve got a lot of talented girls vying for those spots. So we’ll work with them skill-wise and let them compete against each other, and that will shake out where they stand. Emma and Bella are better singles players,” said the coach. “We’re just trying to find the best fit for [everyone].”
The boys’ side of the roster is a little more evenly balanced by classes, though not as well-populated with 11 total players – three seniors, four juniors, only one sophomore, and three freshmen. The seniors are J.J. Acosta, Jamie Chang, and Kaleb Marsico. The juniors are Eason Lin, Keaton Whisenhunt, Alex Schaefer, and Lucas Hefflin. The lone sophomore is Wesley Jarrell, and the freshmen include Caleb Schaefer, Jon David Hefflin, and Noah Brown.
Of those 11 players, one stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of experience and success – senior J.J. Acosta. “J.J. is an unbelievable tennis player,” said his coach. “He’s had a ton of success in our program. He’s played meaningful matches ever since the ninth grade in doubles. But since his brother (Brendon) graduated, who is playing at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, [J.J.] is going to be a singles guy this year. So it’s going to be a different arena for him, but he’s excited about it.” Both the other seniors, Chang and Marsico, are new to the program and mostly new to tennis, so they have some catching up to do, said Pearcy.
The heart of the boys’ program will be the junior class, with all four being returning players from last season. Alex Schaefer was our #1 singles guy last year. Keaton Whisenhunt was our #2 singles player. Eason Lin and Lucas Hefflin were junior varsity players last season. I expect all those guys to either hold down or compete for varsity positions this year. They need to step forward and try to fill the shoes of some guys that graduated last year, and I think they are more than capable of doing so.
“[Sophomore] Wesley Jarrell is a young player with a good attitude,” continued Pearcy. “He works hard. This is his second year. It’s just a matter of time until he starts competing for a varsity spot.” Caleb Schaefer and Jon David Hefflin have older siblings on the team and have been around tennis for a long time and have taken lessons. Noah Brown is a big guy who has a chance to be a good doubles player one day, said his coach. “He’s got some height and is excited about getting better.”
As for the competition this season across the rest of the 5A West, Coach Pearcy said, “The Mountain Home girls are really good. They’re going to be tough to deal with this year. Van Buren has a solid program and Harrison is pretty good. But Greenwood, Harrison, and Mountain Home are the only coaches that are returning,” revealed Pearcy. “There are five new coaches in the conference, so it will be interesting to see how those coaches shake things up. But I think a little bit of instability [across the league] is an advantage for our kids.
“We’re trying to get a little more organized as a conference,” the coach added. “We’re trying to set some rules and boundaries for all our programs, so we’re going to play everybody twice. By the time we get to the conference tournament, every singles player will have played every other singles player in our conference, and the same with doubles. It will then be easier to seed the conference tournament. It will [also] mean fewer non-conference matches this year.”
Pearcy said the league will continue to meet halfway for some matches to save on time and travel expenses. “It’s the same deal [as in the past],” he said. “We’re meeting at Russellville High School and Arkansas Tech University.” Those matches will usually involve four teams such as Greenwood, Alma, Harrison, and Mountain Home, an economical arrangement for all four schools. “We’ll get those [matches] knocked out in one day. It will be good for the kids, who won’t have to be out as late, and we only have to go to Russellville.”
The other schools in the 5A West include Siloam Springs, Greenbrier, Russellville, and Van Buren. While Pearcy expects Mountain Home to be the team to beat this year in girls’ play, he’s certainly not counting his Lady Bulldogs out of the hunt. “Our girls are talented and very deep,” he said. “Winning a conference championship is not about just one player. It’s about scoring across the board. With our depth I think that’s something we can do this year, so I hope we’re competing for a conference championship.”
On the boys’ side of the equation, Van Buren is probably the top contender in the west. “They’ve got some good players over there and those guys play year around, all the time. Mountain Home was really good last year, so they will be competitive. It all depends on how our [juniors] step up and play. That will determine how we do this year,” said the coach. “J.J. has the expectation of being a conference champion this season. We’re hoping he can carry on that same tradition he’s had for the past three years.
“It’s a great group of kids,” concluded the coach. “They’re fun to work with. You can tell they’ve been raised the right way. They do what’s asked of them and they are hard workers. It’s just a great group of kids to be around, and we’ve got some very involved parents – some generous parents – and they take care of us well.”
Due to the extreme heat last week, Greenwood’s first match, slated for the 22nd, was postponed to a later date, yet to be determined. That leaves this week’s matches against Russellville and Mountain Home as the season openers for both GHS teams. Those matches will be played at Russellville High School on Tuesday the 29th.