TERRE HAUTE —
When Illinois resident Bill Blankenbaker debuted as Terre Haute South High School’s tennis coach for boys and girls back in 1996, he had no idea how long he would continue with those duties.
Since then, he’s stuck with it, compiling a 185-94 record (.663 winning percentage) in 18 seasons with the boys and a 224-71 mark (.759) in 17 seasons with the girls. Highlighting his career was a state championship with the Braves’ 21-0 girls squad in the spring of 2001. That totals up to a combined 409-165 (.712).
Along the way, he’s guided teams to 18 sectional titles (eight boys and 10 girls), 17 regional titles (seven boys and 10 girls) and eight semistate titles (two boys and six girls).
These accomplishments helped Blankenbaker, now 58, earn induction into the Indiana High School Tennis Hall of Fame. Induction ceremonies will take place Feb. 7 at Five Seasons Family Sports Club, 1300 E. 96th St., Indianapolis.
Joining him in the class of 2014 will be Steve Wakefield, Jerry Gerig, Michael Hopkinson and Elissa Kim.
Keynote speaker for the induction dinner will be former U.S. Davis Cup captain and Olympic tennis coach Tom Gullikson.
Among others with Terre Haute connections in the Indiana High School Tennis Hall of Fame are Dan Hopkins (1998), Jim Cook (2000) and Bob Fischer (2001).
Blankenbaker was notified of his induction in a phone call last month.
“Hey, what a Christmas present,” he reflected about his reaction. “I felt very honored.”
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Success came early for Blankenbaker at South as his boys team finished as state runner-up in the fall of 1996, racking up a 15-5 record. In the state finals at Indianapolis North Central, his No. 12-ranked team edged South Bend St. Joseph’s 3-2 in the semifinal match before losing to Park Tudor 4-1 for the championship.
Before that, the ‘96 Braves had knocked off Jeffersonville (3-2) and Center Grove (3-2) in the semistate, Mount Vernon (4-1) and Vincennes Lincoln (4-1) in the regional and Terre Haute North (3-2) and West Vigo (4-1) in the sectional.
Current movie and television actor Joey Cantillo was a singles player on that South team.
“I had known some of those kids from teaching at the Bubble [Wabash Valley Tennis Club],” Blankenbaker recalled, “so I knew the kids and I knew I was going to have a good team, but I didn’t know it was going to be that good.”
South’s boys also reached the state finals in the fall of 2010 and ended up 17-3.
But Blankenbaker admits his proudest moment as a coach was with the undefeated girls in 2001. The Braves were led then by senior Lauren Clary, junior Kristen Clary and senior Helen Hildebrand at singles.
“Since that was our third year in a row where we’d hopefully be in the [state] finals, we were ranked pretty high,” Blankenbaker said. “I knew if everything went well, we’d get to the finals again.”
That they did.
On June 2, 2001, No. 3-ranked South slipped past No. 1 Indianapolis North Central 3-2 on its home courts in the semifinals. Then the Braves blanked No. 7 Anderson Highland 5-0 in the finals to capture the school’s first team state championship in any sport.
“I think a lot of Indianapolis coaches were happy for me because we had come so close the previous two years,” Blankenbaker mentioned. “Those three girls [the Clary sisters and Hildebrand] carried the team for three years. It was fantastic to coach them.”
In the days that followed, Blankenbaker and his girls were treated like royalty in Terre Haute.
“We got to go to the mayor’s office,” he noted. “We rode on a fire truck down Seventh Street. Parents were taking us out to eat. It was a fantastic time in Terre Haute.”
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Even though South doesn’t always win state championships, coaching these teams has provided fond memories for Blankenbaker every year since 1996.
“The kids and the families, that’s why it’s fun to coach,” he pointed out. “With parents like we’ve had, it’s made coaching a lot of fun.
“I have built a heck of a big tennis family during my career at Terre Haute South and Riley [with youth programs], along with the people I’ve played with and the [opposing] coaches.”
When Blankenbaker gives his acceptance speech Feb. 7, he plans to prominently mention his family — wife Janice and sons Brandon and Ryan — for their unwavering support.
“Coaching and giving lessons have taken time away from them over the years,” he admitted.
Looking ahead, Blankenbaker isn’t sure how much longer he’ll keep coaching at South and teaching physical education at Riley and Franklin elementary schools.
But if he ever does step down, it won’t be because of his lack of love for Terre Haute South and its tennis families. He made sure to thank longtime assistant coach Wes Kirk, along with former assistant Larry Stuckey, current athletic director Brian Mancuso and former AD Deb Webster, for helping make his job easier.
Tickets for the Hall of Fame dinner and ceremony are $30 apiece. For more information or for tickets, contact Sharon Rosenburgh at email@example.com or Tim Cleland at firstname.lastname@example.org by Jan. 31.
Bill Blankenbaker as a player
Even though Bill Blankenbaker is being inducted into the Indiana Tennis Hall of Fame primarily because of his coaching accomplishments at Terre Haute South High School, he has enjoyed more than his share of success as an adult tennis player.
Blankenbaker reached a career high of No. 11 in the national ranking for men’s 35-and-over singles. He and his oldest son Brandon were ranked as high as No. 6 in the National Father/Son Division. He and his other son Ryan were listed as high as No. 9 in the same rankings.
Bill and Brandon Blankenbaker received the Talbert/Trabert Sportsmanship Award at the National Father/Son Clay Court Championships in 2003.
Both of Bill’s sons played college tennis at Eastern Illinois University and are teaching pros at Kiawhia Island Tennis Resort.
— David Hughes