The Twin Cities have had two legendary coaches with exceptionally long-term careers.
Ron Brown coached for 58 years in Centralia, and they named the high school basketball court after him. Next season, Jack State will enter his 48th year of coaching tennis at W.F. West. The greatest honor for State’s legacy? For State, it is the thriving community of tennis players in the county, of all ages and backgrounds, who simply would not have been introduced to the game or advanced in their talent without him.
State — nicknamed “Six-Eight Jack State,” a reference to his height — grew up in Spokane playing basketball. He made the varsity squad his junior year at Eastern Washington University, and averaged 15 points and 14 rebounds a game as a senior.
That earned him an All-American honorable mention nod, and a spot on a Spokane AAU team that finished second in the nation.
After teaching at Lewis and Clark High School for five years, he went back for his master’s degree in education with an emphasis in physical education. One day, he was helping the basketball team with their studies in the library when he met Colleen Murphy, who would later become Colleen State.
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” State said. “That way we can always tell our kids we met in the library.”
He finished out his master’s degree and started work at W.F. West in 1974 as the basketball coach. He taught physical education and occasionally other subjects, but his passion was coaching. Colleen followed him across the Cascades and took a job in Tacoma until they married and settled down in Chehalis.
Basketball, not tennis, was the original job description.
The role of tennis coach was vacant when he arrived, and State happened to know how to keep score, so he was considered sufficiently qualified.
In the early years of his coaching, State was more like a team manager than a strategic counselor. Upperclassmen on the team helped teach State the nuances of the game, and with their help and his background as an athlete, he went from stand-in babysitter to serious coach.
One thing he had to unlearn from his basketball background, however, was yelling at his players during matches.
In high school tennis, there are no timeouts, and the coach can only talk to players between sets, so up to two times in a whole match. Additionally, that window of coaching is extremely brief. Usually, conversations last fewer than three minutes.
Former W.F. West tennis standout and current Thorbeckes pro T.J. Underwood says the greatest advantage to being a Bearcat tennis player is that after the decades-long evolution in his style, State has mastered coaching during those precious moments.
“His players get a wealth of strategic adjustments just within the short time that they are allowed to converse with him,” Underwood said. “They are then able to confidently go into every match knowing that they are more prepared than their opponents.”
Underwood’s statements aren’t just flattery. If there had been a 2A State Tennis Tournament this year, the Bearcats would have sent five players. The top three District 4 tournament spots in doubles and singles qualify. On May 7, W.F. West singles player Claire Kuykendall wrapped up the girls season in second place. For the boys, W.F. West took first place as a team in the district thanks to Christian Iverson and Cade Cameron placing second in doubles, and Joseph Chung and Justin Chung securing second and third place in singles, respectively.
State’s rosters run deep, and it’s all to do with his approach that allows every player on the team to thrive.
About 40 girls sign up for the tennis team at W.F. West every year, and although there are only nine varsity slots, nobody ever gets cut from the team. Unlike most high school sports, the varsity and junior varisty teams are coached together. The line between the teams is a blurry one, with many players bouncing back and forth between the two during the season. As a result, there is a strong sense of community between players regardless of their rank.
“You don’t ever see the best tennis player telling the worst player to go somewhere else. On a basketball court, you might see that,” State said.
That community also reaches beyond the limits of the Bearcat team.
How often do W.F. West Bearcats and Centralia Tigers practice together? In tennis, it happens all the time, whether it’s outside in the summer, or inside at Thorbeckes in Chehalis. Though he hopes to see the day when Lewis County has more than one covered court, State is thankful for what Thorbeckes offers.
“Unlike football or basketball, tennis is a sport that can be played all your life, so alumni rarely set down their racquets after high school is over. They make a point of frequently coming back to Chehalis to practice with current players and share their past experiences,” Underwood said. One of the reasons those players feel drawn to return here, Underwood noted, is because State stays in touch with them.
“An incredible number of people have benefitted from this sense of community, and none of it would have been possible without Jack's influence,” he said.
Giving Students Confidence On and Off the Court
To State, the stories of two specific students perfectly illustrate the value of tennis for youth.
The first of those was 2016 graduate Emma Lund, who was 5-foot-2 and did not naturally take to tennis in the way some of the players he recruited off the basketball team had.
Lund, who has epilepsy, said she struggled academically during her childhood.
“So, when I started playing tennis it gave me a different level of confidence,” she said.
The way Lund fought through adversity inspired her coach.
By her senior year, she played first doubles on varsity, and finished fourth in the 2A District 4 tournament. She went on to play at NCAA Division III Pacific Lutheran University.
Lund credits her success in tennis to State believing in her.
“Jack treated me like the rest of his players. He never treated me differently. He might have provided me more needed support, but I was still just like any other Bearcat in his eyes,” Lund said. “With Jack’s support and coaching, I was able to carry that confidence with me off the court.”
Watching students such as Lund finish out their final seasons is the most emotional part about coaching for State. He noted that getting through their post-season banquets without “blubbering” was challenging, but the event brings him great pride.
The second story was about 2013 graduate Kenny Saari.
“When Kenny was a freshman, you could not pry a word out of his mouth,” State said of the shy underclassman. “I mean, it was like pulling teeth.”
But as Saari continued playing tennis, like in Lund’s case, he grew in confidence. By his junior year, he placed fifth in the 2A State doubles tournament. He took sixth his senior year with a different partner.
He also credits State.
“Mr. State has had a large positive impact on the community and myself by pushing his players to reach their potential and helping develop skills that translate on and off the court,” Saari said.
State said that by the time he was a senior, Saari was the life of the party; nowadays, when he comes back to town, word spreads and everyone wants to hit with him.
For Saari, State’s dedication and commitment to the community encouraged him to come back and get on the court with the younger players.
“The amount he has invested over multiple generations through the years is unparalleled, and he continues to have a relationship with many of his former students long after graduation,” Saari said.
To 48 and Beyond
Of course, coach State hasn’t done it alone. Colleen was always there to bring popsicles to the team, or to set up gifts and roses at the banquet for all the seniors finishing out their final seasons. And long-time assistant coach Denise Boulac, affectionately called “Boo” by the students, has been a dedicated, positive presence on the teams. Boulac often covers the managerial aspects of coaching, which has allowed State to spend more time focusing on strategy. Take all the support for the Bearcats together, and it’s no wonder they’re such a strong team.
“We’ll be even better next year,” State said.
He has no immediate plan to retire. And after this long, he feels an immense amount of ownership in the tennis program. When he leaves, he will need to know that whoever steps in for him matches his passion for coaching.
“Over those 47 years the Bearcat tennis family has continued to grow and my former players are now friends,” State said. “While it was basketball that brought me to Lewis County, it seems that tennis will be my legacy there.”