ENNIS — After a brief, one-semester stint at Waxahachie High School as a permanent substitute, Keith Howard moved back to his hometown and took over the reins of the Ennis tennis program in 1996.
And this year could very well be the year he finally drapes a gold state championship medal around his, and his teams' neck.
This season the Lions have a legitimate shot at UIL state championships. Their overall season record stands at 14-1, with only one defeat by the always-highly-ranked Texarkana Tigers.
The Lions begin their quest to Austin on Tuesday in the first round of the Region III playoffs against Waco High at the Waco Regional Tennis Center. Ennis enters at the No. 1 seed from District 17-5A and No. 7 in Texas.
If the Lions can make it by Waco High on Tuesday, then they will then face their nemesis A&M Consolidated — the team that eliminated Ennis from a berth in the finals at state last year.
THE MAN WITH THE PLAN
For the last 22 years, Howard has grown and guided his students to 18 district championships and 20 times has qualified for the regional team tennis tournament.
Howard makes it clear that he is only "a head coach on paper only.”
He explained that his exceptional assistants act as head coaches, too. Both of his assistant coaches grew up in his tennis program and graduated from Ennis, as well. Coach Wyatt Johnson has been with Howard for 12 years, while Heather Doslich has been with the district for several years.
Howard was born and bred in Ennis, graduating from his alma mater in 1991. He attended Navarro College after graduation and played two years of tennis for the Bulldogs. While at Navarro, he was named NJCAA All-American Honorable Mention in singles and 2nd Team All-American in doubles. He finished out his college tennis career at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and earned the prestigious "3-D Award" for his drive, discipline, and dedication.
Howard has been married to his wife, Jennifer, for 21 years, and they have three children — Emma, 17, Zoe, 14, and seven-year-old Ace.
Howard has the unique ability to bring kids together and to help them form an unbreakable bond as a team. His students love and trust each other, and their support for each other rarely waivers.
But Howard is most proud that his team and their parents have bought into his program. Not only do they love their tennis as a Lion, but he has successfully encouraged his players to participate in United States Tennis Association (USTA) tournaments outside of their school participation.
The USTA is the ultimate organization in tennis as far as structured and sanctioned competitions in Texas. By becoming an active player in this association, each athlete gains statewide rankings.
A few years ago, Coach Howard jokingly renamed his Lions, "Smashmouth Tennis."
He said with a grin, “'Smashmouth Tennis' is kind of our alter ego.”
The ego carried into the offseason tournament where his players would often be asked questions such as "what country club do you belong to" by Dallas-Fort Worth competitors.
About that time is when Howard had some T-shirts made-up that read, “Smashmouth Tennis: We Ain’t No Country Club.”
As a successful coach, Howard tries to keep his training and drills fresh. He continually comes up with interesting or sometimes even strange drills from time-to-time to keep his kids on their toes.
One of his older favorite drills used to be called “the Happy Gilmore," based on the Adam Sandler movie.
This exercise in futility is where the tennis player stands on the court, while the ball machine pummels him or her with tennis balls. The Coach’s hopeful result is that the kid is no longer afraid of getting hit by the ball, and toughens the player up a bit.
There are even times when the coach, with nothing more than his clipboard, will play one of his hotshot players to bring him or her back to earth — and win.
Howard’s educational influence has also been paramount in sending 37 of his former athletes to colleges all over the United States over his 22-year career.
Over the years, The 2011 4A Coach of the Year has also has had one female singles player qualify for the state tourney three different times. He has also sent five boys doubles teams to Austin with two teams finishing as high as third.
In fact, seven of his students have since gone on to become high school coaches.
They include: Jason Blazek – Denton Ryan, Matt McCleary – Arlington High, Wyatt Johnson – Ennis High, Justin Blazek – McKinney Boyd High (golf), Heather Doslich – Ennis High, Shannon Jordan – Argyle High, and Perry Nutt – formerly at Waxahachie High and he also spent some time at Ennis High.
“Kids are kids, no matter where you go. If you teach them hard work and discipline, then they will generally succeed in tennis, and more importantly, in life," Howard said. "To me, kids are the only true and good investment in life. If you wholeheartedly give of yourself to a kid, you will always get a positive return. My goal every year is for every graduating senior to have the opportunity to play college tennis and to further their education.”
In the meantime, Howard admits, “I’m going to continue to coach tennis as long as I can, as hard as I can.”