Girls Tennis: A coaching icon says goodbye

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08/14/2014 8:00 AM |
Jim Christy coached tennis for 33 years. (Credit: Garret Meade)

Jim Christy led Mattituck to a 13-1 record last season, his final with the Tuckers. (Credit: Garret Meade)

One doesn’t need to speak with Jim Christy for long to learn what he is all about.

Just a couple of minutes into a 70-minute interview on Monday, a reporter asked Christy if he knew what his career record as the Mattituck High School girls tennis coach is.

“No,” he answered. “No idea. I never kept track of that kind of stuff.”

The next questions: What about championships? How many of them have you won?

“That’s not something, again, I really paid too close attention to,” he said.

What mattered to Christy more than records, numbers and statistics were the players. He surely coached plenty of them during his time with the Tuckers.

An entire generation has grown up in Mattituck, knowing only one girls tennis coach: Jim Christy.

That era has ended. After 33 years on the job, Christy is stepping down. After mulling it over during the winter, Christy, 72, said he informed Mattituck’s athletic director, Gregg Wormuth, of his decision to retire. Mike Huey, who coaches the school’s boys tennis team, will take over the girls team.

Christy, who retired as the Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District’s director of guidance in 2003, acknowledged it was a tough decision, but said he wants to be able to devote more time to his family. He and his wife, Betty, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. The two had met when Jim was a junior at St. Pascal Baylon High School in St. Albans, Queens, started dating the following year, and got married on June 13, 1964, five days after he graduated from Georgetown University.

The couple has a residence in Mattituck but lives in The Villages, Fla., from November to May. They have four children — Beth, Jimmy, Cathy and Kevin — and eight grandchildren.

“We would like a chance to see them,” Jim said. “When you begin to start to think about life, time is limited and you want to make sure that you’re spending that time wisely. I’m giving something up, but I’m replacing it with something I love even more.”

Jim Christy in his Hoyas playing days. (Credit: Georgetown Athletics)

Jim Christy in his Hoyas playing days. (Credit: Georgetown Athletics)

Jim Christy’s name has more of a connection to basketball than tennis. He was, after all, a standout guard for Georgetown. In 1975 he was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame. In 2007, he was among 25 honorees named to Georgetown’s all-century team.

Christy’s first real introduction to tennis came when he was in high school and the school’s principal, Bruno Brauner, was looking for competition for his tennis-playing son, Paul Brauner, a left-hander who went on to play college tennis. The two were paired and played a lot. Christy said he loved the sport immediately.

Christy matched that affinity for tennis with a love for coaching when he took over the reigns of Mattituck’s girls tennis team in 1980. That first year was a good one, but Christy remembers the second year as probably the best Mattituck has ever had. The Tuckers went undefeated during the regular season, were ranked second in the county and lost in the final four to Port Jefferson, 4-3.

His oldest daughter, Beth, was a prominent player on those early teams, winning conference championships as a junior and as a senior.

Over the years there were plenty of standout players such as Erica Bundrick, Melissa Nicovic, Kim Pawlowski and her sister Peg Pawlowski. (Christy said the Pawlowski sisters were prone to argue with each other. When the two sisters faced each other in a conference final, he said, “My only advice to both girls was, ‘Don’t get defaulted for bad conduct,’ because you knew they were going to have a fight.”)

But what Christy said he really took joy in were those times when a player further down in the lineup, like in third or fourth singles, came through to produce the winning point in a 4-3 match. “That moment is priceless,” he said. One time, after one of his players did just that, Christy underscored the importance of the occasion for the player, telling a reporter, “That was her Wimbledon, her U.S. Open.”

Team tennis appeals to Christy because of the mix of individual play within the team concept. It’s a different dynamic. He also likes the fact that there is no time limit. A team with a lead cannot run out a clock.

“You can’t win the match unless you win the last point and that’s what to me makes it so exciting,” he said. “You have to stay in the moment. You have to stay in the present. No matter what the score is, you have to play the present point.”

Jim Christy with one of his former players, Molly Kowalski. Christy is stepping down as Mattituck's coach after 33 years. (Credit: Garret Meade)

Jim Christy with one of his former players, Molly Kowalski. Christy is stepping down as Mattituck’s coach after 33 years. (Credit: Garret Meade)

Tall, trim and fit, with an ever-present grin, Christy is affable and pleasant.

“I can’t remember anyone ever saying anything bad about Jim Christy,” said Huey, a longtime friend, colleague and Mattituck’s former athletic director.

Huey marvels at how well Christy relates to young players.

“He’s as good a coach as you’re going to get,” Huey said. “First of all, he’s going to get them enthusiastic about them wanting to play … and he’ll take them to the next level.”

Wormuth, the athletic director, said Christy brought both passion and knowledge to his coaching.

“He’s the consummate example of what a coach should aspire to be, I think,” Wormuth said. “The student-athletes are always first in Jim’s mind. They love what he does.”

Just ask one of them.

Molly Kowalski played on Christy’s last team, and will go on to play for Muhlenberg College (Penn.) in the fall. She said Christy helped her a lot with her game. “He’s a very special person,” she said. “He’s very motivating.”

Ah, the motivation factor. Christy is a master motivator. He said the experience has to be enjoyable for players. He said he tried to set realistic goals for them to improve. “That’s all that matters,” he said.

Although he does not seem to be big on numbers, there is one statistic that Christy is proud of: zero, as in the number of tennis players he cut from his team. “If you came out for tennis, you eventually were going to be on the varsity,” he said.

Based on average roster size, Christy figured he has coached over 400 tennis players, prompting one to wonder how many lives he has touched. But Christy turned it around, saying the players have touched his life by continually having him reexamine himself, thus making him a better person.

While older people tend to develop what Christy calls a “hardening of the attitude,” he said young people look at things differently, constantly providing a fresh perspective.

“They’re constantly growing, and you grow with them,” he said. “They pull you along. … Really, the reality is four hundred and whatever [players] touched my life. That is huge.”

Christy walks away from the game a winner. His Tuckers won the League VIII championship last fall, upset Harborfields in the Suffolk County Team Tournament and gave East Islip a scare before ultimately falling, 4-3, in the Round of 16. It was Mattituck’s only loss in a 13-1 season.

Records in The Suffolk Times’ archives are incomplete, but one can get a sense of Christy’s success by an examination of what his teams have done since 1999. Excluding a losing season in 2010, the Tuckers went 162-41, won five league championships, and posted their third undefeated regular season under Christy in 2011 when they went 17-1.

Now Christy looks forward to a new chapter in his life, and the Tuckers face life after Christy. The iconic coach who had come to be identified with the program he led will not be in charge when the team assembles for its first preseason practice on Aug. 25.

Christy played down the change, acknowledging that everyone is replaceable. “The people that don’t get that are the ones that have the trouble,” he said.

Christy said he had a “fantastic career” at Mattituck High School and enjoyed every minute of it.

“The girls that I have had the pleasure of coaching are really outstanding people,” he said. “It’s been a labor of love. These kids, I don’t see them as children, I see them as young women, and I’m so proud of what they’ve become after they’ve graduated.”

Christy said that regardless of the sport he coached, whenever he arrived at the gym, at the tennis courts, at the ball field, at the track, he got another shot of adrenaline.

“I have as much enthusiasm and I think I have as much energy for coaching that I did when I started,” he said. “I just know that coaching enriched my life. It added a lot of joy.”

He added, “It’s been great, and I’d love a chance to do it over again.”

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