The preseason metro rankings for boys’ tennis came out in last Wednesday’s edition of the Star Tribune. It wasn’t long thereafter that those rankings were snaking their way through Twitter accounts associated with Minneapolis Washburn — not for what they contained but for what was omitted.
“I saw them when they came out and we weren’t ranked anywhere,” senior captain Sam Ilic said. “It bothered us a little bit.”
As well it should have. Under the tutelage of former Washburn player Ryan Hoag, the Millers’ tennis program has experienced a rebirth. It’s gone from a team that had five players show up for a preseason meeting when Hoag first took the job seven years ago to a savvy, veteran-laden bunch that plays with a confidence that has resulted in three consecutive Minneapolis Conference titles, their first such streak since the mid-1990s.
It’s no coincidence Hoag played on those teams before going on to athletic stardom at Gustavus, where he was a football and track standout. He was a seventh-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2003 and was a member of five different NFL franchises, as well as the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL and the New York Sentinels of the short-lived United Football League (UFL). Hoag flirted with mainstream stardom as a reality-show contestant on “The Bachelorette” in 2008 and “The Bachelor Pad” in 2012.
For all of his travels, however, his days at Washburn never left him. He spent time as an assistant tennis coach while still chasing his football dream and took over as head coach in 2008.
“This is where all of my best memories were,” Hoag said.
That first year, a preseason meeting netted just a smattering of interest. Undaunted, Hoag took it upon himself to build the program by any means possible, even if it meant going door to door.
“I went out and looked for players, talked them into coming out for tennis,” he said. “We had to create interest.”
Sign of life showed quickly, with the team winning a few matches in Hoag’s first year, a few more the next.
The biggest coup was the addition of a corps of seventh-graders — now seniors — that ran with Hoag’s football-player mentality, turning his passion into their own.
“You could see right away that he cared,” said Jacob Toffler, now a senior captain. “You could feel it.”
A lack of players wasn’t the only obstacle to be overcome. Washburn has no tennis courts to call its own, practicing on public courts at Morgan Park in south Minneapolis. Home matches — if one could call them that — are played at Reed-Sweatt Tennis Center in Minneapolis.
“I don’t know the last time we had a home match,” Hoag said.
Through it all, Hoag’s desire to see his alma mater succeed has been the Millers’ driving force. They have no superstars. Few of the players play year round, bucking the tennis trend. More than a few, including senior Jake Smith — a varsity soccer player who typically plays No. 2 or 3 singles — had never before played a competitive tennis match before being on the team.
“I joined in ninth grade,” Smith said. “My [older] brother was playing and I saw how quickly he was progressing, so I wanted to play, too. Now I love it. It’s a lifelong sport.”
The Millers are currently No. 8 in the Class 2A coaches association rankings, defying convention with an esprit-de-corps built through pride and hard work. Washburn is on the short list of teams with a shot at a Class 2A championship. For two years running, they’ve been bounced from the postseason in the section finals by Wayzata, the eventual state champion.
Never willing to accept losing, Hoag talks openly about long-term goals.
“I’m not afraid to talk about that stuff,” he said. “If we’re going to be the best, we have to know who the best is and shoot for that. I think we can beat Wayzata and I want to the team to feel that way.”
“He motivates us,” said Toffler. “He’s driven to win at his core. That inspires us to feel that we can beat the Edinas, the Wayzatas.”
For all he accomplished, Hoag said nothing compares with what he and the Millers have done so far.
“With everything I’ve done, the NFL and all that, this is what make me the most proud,” he said.