VIRGINIA — In his 30 year coaching career with the Virginia high school tennis teams, Dave Gunderson has never wanted the spotlight to be on him.
Instead, Gunderson did everything he could to make sure the focus was always on the athletes, the kids that came out for the sport each year.
In doing so, Gunderson helped create and maintain a tennis program that rivals the best in the state. From becoming head coach Virginia in 1984, to leading the Blue Devil girls to a state championship in 1989 and then ending his career with a runner-up finish at the big dance in 2014, Gunderson’s impact on the program, tennis community and students cannot be understated.
Earlier this month, Gunderson was honored by the Minnesota State High School Tennis Coaches Association and was inducted into their Hall of Fame.
Gunderson says his wife, Amy, and good friend Rick Englestad were the driving forces behind getting Gunderson into the Hall of Fame.
“They kind of went behind my back to get me inducted this year because they know I’m not one to look for the accolades,” Gunderson said Tuesday at the Virginia Indoor Tennis and Pickleball Club. “Rick didn’t leave me much of a choice and said this year was my year and, in the end, I’m glad they did that for me.”
Gunderson said the award was given to him the day before his daughter’s wedding, which made it a strong one-two punch for the tennis coach.
“What a pleasure to see one of my best friends nominate me for this honor but then the next day get to see my daughter so happy at her wedding.”
Getting the head coaching job in 1984, Gunderson said he was courted by Jim Prittinen to apply for the spot. Initially inexperienced when it came to tennis, Gunderson was ready to learn, all for the kids.
“I didn’t play high school tennis. I played some in junior college but I told Jim that I knew about tennis. He told me not to worry and that he and his father Bob would help me and they’ve been helping ever since.”
From there, the coaching staff at Virginia barely changed, something that Gunderson attributed to the program’s success. Along with Jim and Bob Prittinen, Gunderson had Lynn Mauston on his staff. That group of four remained constant for nearly 30 years.
Along with the staff, the first few groups of girls and boys that came out for the team made Gunderson feel ready to coach the Devils.
“The kids really helped me. They could have decided that I didn’t know a lot about tennis and it wouldn’t work out but they helped me and we got better. I got better as a coach and I think they just knew I cared. The kids really made it all so worth it.”
In building the program up, Gunderson approached tennis the same way he would teaching: Put the kids first and prepare them the best way possible.
“I told our activities director in the beginning that since we compete academically with the best in the state, why couldn’t we do that athletically? If you want one thing, you should want both.
“Traveling south of Duluth and playing teams that we might see at the state tournament was important to us. We got to travel all over to places like Rochester and Stillwater and we built a coaching staff that could best teach these kids.”
While Gunderson retired from coaching at the high school level in 2014, he still does lessons with kids and adults, including members of the tennis and pickleball club. What exactly drives him to keep teaching the sport?
“I just think the people down here are just really nice people. Our members are great people too. I’ll play pickleball with them as well and hopefully when everything’s done it’s all smiles.
“I still get excited when I see any player hit a great shot and I just enjoy being on the court. If someone makes a great shot I’m going to be loud and excited about it because it’s great to see them improve and learn.”
Gunderson’s time as a coach also included being a part of the tennis advisory committee for the Minnesota State High School League. Some of Gunderson’s biggest accomplishments there include increasing the varsity roster from 13 players to 15, as well as working to get a consolation tournament added for the state tournament. Again, this was all done for the kids.
“Sometimes we played with up to 20 kids. I was never worried about the kids at the top, but I was always worried about if I was being fair to those kids right on the line of being inside the top 13 or not. So I wanted to do what I could to expand the roster and get more kids playing and being a part of something.
“Getting the consolation tournament added was huge because if you were an out of state team that went to state and you drew Blake or Rochester Lourdes first, your tournament was over after one match. It was important for the kids. Not just for our kids, but other team’s kids. I’d think that if our kid doesn’t go, at least the kid that does go gets the opportunity to have a great experience.”
Throughout the years, many tennis families have made their names known in Virginia. Gunderson says that those families are making things come full circle years later.
“So many families have come through this program and now we’re seeing some of their kids come through as well. Even if they don’t live in the area anymore, they’ll call me up and ask if I can hit with them on the court. Their parents gave so much to me over the years so it’s a pleasure to give back to them when I can.
With the end of the Virginia High School tennis program and the beginning of the Rock Ridge tennis program now blending together, Gunderson says he’s in a unique position watching things change over.
“I grew up in Virginia and then went away to college but then I came back. For a while, everything I had in my closet was Blue Devils or blue and white. The great thing is that the kids who come here to play tennis are always so appreciative. We’ve had kids from Hibbing, Grand Rapids, Duluth and more come here to hit and they’re always the nicest kids.
“The kids that came from Eveleth-Gilbert to join the boys team this year have been great. They want to play and get better. I’ve always said that a coach can’t want it more than the kids and these kids that are coming to play clearly want it.”
On being honored, Gunderson wanted to thank his coaching staff as well as many others that helped build the program to where it is.
“Jim and Bob Prittinen were the ones that got me started. Jim said he would help me get better and I think he did a great job of that. Bob’s only concern was to make the kids better. He’s been a volunteer forever and he still helps to this day.
“Lynn Mauston has been with me since Day 1. She’s my organizer. She does everything behind the scenes, more than I’ll ever know.”
Others that contributed to the program include Ken Slagle, George Erickson and Mike Aro.
“We never missed a state tournament when Ken helped. He would work with the kids then turn around and string rackets on a moment’s notice. Mike Aro is probably the most positive person I have ever met. Dragging him off the basketball court to help us made a big difference when he was around.
“Then there’s George Erickson. He was so instrumental in getting this indoor facility. It allows us to continue to serve everyone in the area, kids and adults alike. Without this building, I probably would be done giving lessons by now.”
Gunderson also gave a nod to Marleen Emery and Colleen Villa, activities office secretaries that always made sure things were in order.
“Whenever I needed anything, they were so helpful. Whether I was on the courts or in the classroom, they made sure nothing was late and everything was in order.”
Finally, Gunderson’s family was most important. His wife Amy and daughters Alexis and Taylor were all important parts of his coaching career.
“Amy volunteers with what I do now and helps a lot of kids and adults with drills we do. She’s so important in letting me do what I love to do.
“And it was so great being able to coach both of my daughters. Seeing them have fun playing the game that I have come to love is something special. Everyone that’s been a part of this with me has made it all so great.”