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Tennis-a-thon raises money and provides coaching to kids

Retired tennis coach Leroy Lemaster has been organizing the annual 24-hour tennis-a-thon fundraiser for 15-years. (Colin Mulvany)
Retired tennis coach Leroy Lemaster has been organizing the annual 24-hour tennis-a-thon fundraiser for 15-years. (Colin Mulvany)

The Medical Lake Tennis-a-thon has been a fixture in town for 17 years.

The annual event, a fundraiser for the food bank, outreach center and tennis team, will be Wednesday and next Thursday.

Its longevity is thanks to Leroy Lemaster, Medical Lake High School’s retired tennis coach.

“It’s a community effort for a good cause,” Lemaster said.

Lemaster coached at the high school from 1965 to 2012. In that time he also started a summer tennis camp. It’s been running 21 years.

The children who sign up are the focus. “I want them to have fun and love the game,” Lemaster said. “I enjoy watching parents have fun with their kids and ex-players coming back too. It is kind of a reunion.”

During a recent tennis camp, the Layton siblings – Aria, 6, Rianna, 9, and Reo, 11 – were introduced to tennis for the first time. They didn’t have rackets, but Lemaster had extras.

“They were just as happy as can be. It was astounding to me, they were just eating it up. I let the youngest try to do what bigger kids were doing,” Lemaster said.

After playing a while, Rianna exclaimed, “I love this Momma.” Then Aria said, “This is fun!” Later, Aria drew a picture for coach Leroy, with a message: “Tennis is awesome!”

Every kid enjoyed the games and drills. “With all those kids, it’s a circus,” Lemaster admitted.

Instructor Jake Wesselman was in the camp as a 4-year-old. Now a junior at EWU, he said the tennis team helped him through his high school years at Medical Lake.

“I had a bad attitude in high school and got frustrated with tennis. Coach Leroy told me, ‘There’s life after tennis, Jake,’ ” Wesselman said. “Later, he asked me to be captain. He puts in the time to get to know you. I want to be like him, a part of the community.”

Wesselman is one of dozens of former students who come back to provide lessons.

And parents are thankful for Lemaster’s leadership, too. Even parents of younger players echo Wesselman’s sentiment.

Wendy Gilbert was a student of Lemaster’s 20 years ago. “Leroy is like a grandpa,” she said. “He has influenced thousands of kids, he is very encouraging and motivating.” Never mind the championship banners on the fence flapping in the wind, kids like Gilbert’s 10-year-old daughter Kirsten come to the camp and the tennis-a-thon to learn how to play and have fun.

A small committee leads the event, including MLHS coaches Justin Blayne and Dawn Eliassen, Sharon Lemaster, Ashlee King and Glenda Haugen. Parents, community businesses, churches and residents help out in a variety of ways.

David Ralphs, one of Lemaster’s students in the 1960s who now lives in Germany, provides support from afar. The first time Ralphs sent money for new rackets, Lemaster had teammates write thank you letters. Checks kept coming yearly. In a recent letter to Lemaster, Ralphs wrote: “It is your contribution that has made a big difference, more than just tennis.”

Lemaster’s family also learned about tennis. Son Ty and daughter Tressa were both top players in high school; his wife, Sharon, is instrumental with the tennis-a-thon, as is son Jay, who volunteers as a DJ.

Lemaster said that he was introduced to tennis in 1950 as a boy in Twisp, Wash.

“The Kiwanis built a concrete slab, a tennis court,” he said. “A preacher built some wooden paddles because there were no tennis rackets in Twisp, since we had no court before that. They were like big ping-pong paddles. We played paddle tennis that summer. A guy at the sawmill from Minnesota had played tennis when he was younger; watching him play was one of our biggest inspirations.”

Lemaster was a freshman in 1951 on Twisp High School’s first tennis team.

“We were coached by the history teacher, who just watched us,” he said. “We ordered our first real rackets from Montgomery Ward’s catalog.”

The 75-year-old sustains the established tennis-a-thon fundraiser and still plays doubles with kids.

“If I don’t have to move too far too quick,” he added.

He came to Medical Lake from Wenatchee Junior College. “I think it was just meant to be,” he said. Although retired, he’s still likely meant to be in motion with this community, giving and serving up more than tennis.

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