Some of the traditions Leroy Lemaster brought to the Medical Lake boys’ tennis program over the years may indeed fade away now that he’s officially – and finally – fully retired.
Never to be forgotten, however, will be the impact Lemaster made on the sport in the nearly 50 years since he first put his imprint on it. Over the past 20 years Lemaster has strung together an incredible run of tennis success. But his influence has been more than wins.
Lemaster officially wrapped up his third stint as the Cardinal boys’ tennis coach this past spring when a reluctant principal John McSmith was convinced to sign Lemaster’s letter of resignation. “The principal said he wasn’t going to sign it,” Lemaster said with a little chuckle. “But then he started laughing and said he appreciated everything I’d done.”
The 74-year-old Lemaster had done a ton to promote and elevate the game of tennis, and influence the lives of the hundreds of athletes he’s coached along the way.
The Twisp, Wash. native actually began his long association with Medical Lake over a half-century ago in 1961 when he became a tenant counselor at Lakeland Village. Lemaster was first hired as tennis coach at Medical Lake in 1965. His move into a new position at Lakeland forced him to resign in 1968.
He returned to coaching in 1992 and was able to coach his own kids, Ty and Tressa. Lemaster also had the honor of coaching his grandson Dallon Bogart. Lemaster surrendered the job again to protégé Justin Blayne in 2008 but returned to the racket two years ago when Blayne took a new job.
Over the years Lemaster’s work is nothing short of amazing for a small town school playing a big city game. In a span from 1992 to 2008 his Medical Lake teams were represented at state every year but one.
Add to that Lemaster’s teams won two state team championships, back-to-back in fact, in 2004 and 2005. “In an eight-year span we had two firsts, four seconds, a third and a fourth in state as a team,” he said.
But Lemaster takes more pride in stacking the initial building blocks for the program, and the lessons he instilled in his players about life after tennis.
“We’re here and we’re having fun,” Lemaster said. “But when you look back at it I want you to learn you have to work hard in life to get ahead.” If you don’t, it’s going to be a rough road, Lemaster told his players.
“If a coach is not doing that I don’t think they are doing their job,” Lemaster said. “Winning isn’t everything; It’s great if you’re doing it, but if you don’t you learn from it.”
Lemaster elevated tennis to a new level of respect, both across the state, and at Medical Lake High School. Had it not been for his insistence during the days of the LBJ presidency that players receive letters - just like mainstream sports like baseball, basketball, football and track - none of the past decades of history-making accomplishments on the tennis court may have ever happened.
“They wanted me to do it again and I said if you make it a major sport like the rest of the sports so the kids can get a letter I will do it,” Lemaster said. “And they did so since 1966 they’ve been getting a letter for tennis.”
In his initial season Lemaster tripled the turnout – both boys and girls – to 15. And what followed are the numerous traditions that have endeared Lemaster to his players and the community.
One of his, and his players’ favorites, has been the Tootsie Roll tradition. Lemaster said he’s certain the sugar helped fuel an impressive 123-6 won-lost record from 1992-2007. “They’ve paid off haven’t they?” he said.
“I think Tootsie Rolls helped a little bit,” Lemaster said. “I think the kids always kind of tease me about it, but I’ll tell you they still remember it,” he said. At this year’s state tournament players from the glory era, Zak Nelson and Robert Haugen, showed up. “They still like the Tootsie Rolls too,” their former coach said.
And there’s yet another thing Lemaster and his players did on their many trips to postseason.
“We went up and rode the steel horses at Vantage,” Lemaster said, describing the stylized wild horses that gallop along the basalt cliffs overlooking the Columbia River, high above Interstate 90.
Lemaster wasn’t going to make the trek following this year’s state appearance until he was encouraged by his players. “Jake (Wesselman) says come on coach, you can make it,” Lemaster said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen that hill but it’s kind of steep for an old man.”
Bogart, now an assistant coach too, accompanied his grandpa up the hill one last time, the 17th year.
Lemaster, who appropriately was named the Great Northern League’s Coach-of-the-Year, is looking forward to next year when Medical Lake joins the Northeast A League. Former player – and coach – Justin Blayne returns again to lead the team.
“I look forward to coming next year, sitting there and just watching these young guys,” Lemaster said.
And that’s certainly a new Lemaster tradition many in Medical Lake will love to embrace.
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.