Gatlinburg-Pittman’s A.J. Bennett and L&N STEM Academy’s Stephen Blythe got their jobs as head tennis coaches almost by default about a year ago, but it’s all worked out just fine.
Both will be back as their schools’ tennis coaches in 2020.
Blythe, who took over for Geoff Duggan at the end of the 2018 state tournament, led L&N’s boys (6-1) to the Division I Class Small state championship this spring, the first TSSAA state title in any sport for the school.
Bennett, vice principal at Gatlinburg-Pittman, took over as the school’s tennis coach last summer for longtime coach Bob Mason, who died in March of 2018.
Bennett led the Lady Highlanders (12-2) to the Division I Class Small state semifinals, the program’s first state appearance since 2006 and its sixth overall.
Blythe is the 2019 5Star Preps boys’ tennis coach of the year, while Bennett is the girls’ coach of the year.
“It’s obviously nice for the girls to be recognized for all the hard work they put in,” Bennett said. “This award is clearly about them and our three assistants. Our three assistants are terrific, and the girls just bought in and continued to get better.”
Bennett’s three assistants are Chris Bowling, G. Webb, and Monika Williams. They played crucial roles for the Lady Highlanders, whose season ended with a 4-1 semifinal loss to eventual state champion Summertown.
Webb is a certified teaching pro.
“G. and Chris showed up every day and did the instructional side, and Monika did a great job with the organization and logistics,” Bennett said. “You’ve got those three doing a majority of the work, and my name is on the sheet of paper. I’m so thankful for them, and I hope they take great pride in this award because it’s more for them than me.”
Bennett, who was G-P’s boys basketball coach before taking the vice principal’s job, said all three of his tennis assistants have agreed to return with him in 2020.
“We’ve got good players, and they’re even better people,” Bennett said. “It makes it very enjoyable. We’ve got a good thing going, so no need to break it up.”
While Bennett has lots of help, Blythe is a one-coach show at L&N STEM Academy, which was founded in 2011.
Blythe, who has no assistants, landed a teaching job (government) for the 2017-18 school year and began helping Duggan as the boys and girls tennis coach.
“When (Duggan) decided it was time to move on, it was a pretty nice transition moving me to the head coaching position,” Blythe said. “It’s been a great two years.”
Blythe, 25, is from Cape Coral, Fla., and grew up playing baseball, but his stepfather is a tennis professional.
Blythe said he’d welcome help from an assistant if it works for L&N STEM.
“I would love to (have help),” Blythe said. “I’ve been blessed to have athletes who take time outside of school and are dedicated to tennis (taking lessons at local clubs). I’ve been lucky enough to have dedicated players that take the time because we do not have the resources here at our school like some of the bigger powerhouses in our area.”
Blythe isn’t complaining. He’s having a great time as tennis coach and teacher at L&N STEM Academy.
“The reason I’m a teacher is you just get so attached and form these relationships with the students,” he said. “I love spending time with the kids at school, and being out on the courts with them, you just establish a different understanding of who they are as people. That’s what I love about my job, is I get to form these relationships and connections with these young people.”