Bill Wagstaff is synonymous with Spokane tennis.
After 42 years of heading the Mead boys tennis team, Wagstaff is ready to transition into the next phase of his life. That will include more family time – specifically with his grandchildren – fishing and travel.
There is still one league match left for the Panthers this season, along with the long-running Inland Empire Tournament and, of course, postseason play. But the light at the end of the coaching tunnel is growing in intensity.
It all started in the spring of his eighth-grade year when Wagstaff gave up his baseball bat for a tennis racquet. After a strong four years at Ferris and a Northwest Athletic Conference championship at Community Colleges of Spokane, Wagstaff was offered a scholarship to the University of Oregon.
It was there that he met Jo Ann Montgomery – a star tennis player at Washington State – through mutual friends. Even though Ducks don’t usually play well with Cougars, the two eventually were married and formed the top 35s mixed doubles team in the Pacific Northwest.
Wagstaff is thankful to the sport of tennis. It allowed him to study biology at Oregon, introduced him to his wife and gave him a career that fulfilled every aspect of his foundational beliefs.
“Tennis has been a tremendous benefit for me in my lifetime and I would hope that I could help provide that opportunity for my players as they go on through their life,” he said.
Tennis opened up an opportunity at Mead, when the principal at the time remembered losing to Wagstaff the year he graduated high school in 1972 in the Spokane City Tournament.
At the time, Mead was looking for a chemistry teacher and someone to head the boys tennis team. Wagstaff was the perfect fit to slide into those positions, and did so for almost half a century.
Countless memories and lives impacted, Wagstaff will succumb to the inevitable end of any coach’s career – retirement.
After 42 years, many athletes have worked on their tennis and life skills under the watchful and analytical eyes of Wagstaff.
One of those tennis players didn’t just see coach Wagstaff as his high school coach, but as dad.
Ryan Wagstaff played tennis under his dad at Mead from 2009-13 and knew how instrumental he was to his players’ success.
“Before I was even on his team, I knew he was a good coach to have,” Ryan Wagstaff said. “I think he really encouraged people to drill and to get good. He always wanted to make sure that people were learning to be passionate. He tried to show kids his own passion in tennis as just a source of inspiration. He saw value in developing that passion.”
In 42 years, the passion for the sport that built and provided for his family never wavered toward any of his players, no matter the skill level.
“It has been something that I really enjoy – I like coaching,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, I am not sure if I am a good coach, a so-so coach, or whatever, but I enjoy doing it and I work hard at it.”
Gonzaga Prep head boys tennis coach Jon Wrigley has seen firsthand the dedication and passion Wagstaff has for the game of tennis and for the kids who play it. As an opposing coach and as a player on his team (1992-95), Wrigley has felt and seen the love from Wagstaff.
“He’ll go out at the end of a match with the JV players. Varsity’s been done for an hour, and he’ll watch his JV guys and be out there with the last player on the team, and he’ll be working with him with an equal passion as he would with his top player,” Wrigley said.
Some are club players looking to continue to hone their craft, but some were students who either failed to make their preferred spring sport or wanted to try tennis. It didn’t matter, all were welcome.
Wrigley used tennis to stay in shape during the winter months until he decided to shift his attention to the sport his freshman year. He would just hack the ball all over the court until he made varsity.
Over a four-year period, Wagstaff helped guide Wrigley into a good tennis player, one who was trending toward a tennis career after high school.
“He’s very academic in his approach,” Wrigley said. “He is a smart gentleman. His knowledge of the game is unmatched. Once his players buy in and do what he’s asking, he’ll make you the best player you can be. There is no one who can out X-and-O him. He sees things at a high level.”
Four years later, a scholarship to play tennis at Whitworth found its way into Wrigley’s mailbox.
“I wouldn’t have done it without his guidance and direction,” Wrigley said. “He’s the one who got me to Whitworth, for sure.”
Wagstaff has had more than a normal share of players to mold as he proudly flaunts his no-cut policy at Mead, which has stood the test of time as budget issues surface every few years.
“Any kid who wants to turn out, we will take you regardless of your ability,” he said. “We will do the best we can, get through matches and hopefully you’ll get the tennis bug.
“I have always looked at tennis like a student who takes music – music just adds to the overall experience at the high school level and makes them a richer person, and I look at it the same as athletics.”
His policy earned him a prestigious award from the United States Tennis Association in 2010 – the Starfish Award. The award recognizes high school coaches who implement a “no-cut” policy for their teams. Wagstaff has always had that policy and it is one that has shaped his coaching strategy.
“As long as I have coached, I have never, ever cut players,” Wagstaff said. “I guess I have always looked at tennis as this is one of the things that we offer kids and we should no more be cutting in sports as we cut in math class or cutting in debate or cutting in an art class or music. If we value athletics and all of those experience as being good for kids, then we should be allowing kids to participate in them.”
Add in the 2009 USTA/Pacific Northwest outstanding contribution to the community award, the 2009 coach of the year award and at least 16 Greater Spokane League titles and Wagstaff has a lifetime full of trophies in his cabinet.
“I am very proud of my dad,” Ryan Wagstaff said. “As a coach, he taught kids to play tennis, but above all else, he taught kids to be passionate about something. I think he has touched a lot of lives with that lesson.
“He brought a lot of people into this sport and really promoted them. I think early on when it was tougher for kids to make high school teams, it was a big deal for coach to say, ‘Come over and play on my team.’ I don’t know what the number is now, but the combined girls and boys team are consistently among the largest at Mead.”
Bill Wagstaff said his team averages about 45 players per year, but the boys and girls combined during Ryan’s years were around 150.
“He probably knew that a lot of kids probably wouldn’t play tennis after leaving his team, but to him I don’t think that was as important as just trying to learn about being passionate about something, about being an active person and learning growing from your struggles,” Ryan Wagstaff said.
One of his legacies that will remain in place, aside from the players whose lives have been shaped by Wagstaff, is the Inland Empire Tournament.
The 74th annual iteration will run all day Friday and Saturday and will include 53 schools with approximately 800 athletes from the 4A to 1B classifications who can compete in up two 12 events for a combined boys and girls team title.
The sheer numbers make it one of the largest high school events of any sport in the state.
“I don’t think people appreciate the time or effort it takes for he and Lynn (Coleman, Mead’s girls head coach) to make that magic happen,” Wrigley said. “Months in advance of prep and they are sitting there the week before making draws and getting things ready.
“There is no tournament at a high school level that has that many schools and that much participation and still functioning. Without him, this would have died years ago.”
The Inland Empire is designed to give kids more opportunities to play and prepare players for the rigor of state tournament action. Wagstaff wants as many kids as possible to be involved and in doing so, he is lax with his so-called deadlines.
“Oh gosh, our family definitely sees how much time he dedicates to it at home,” Ryan Wagstaff said. “There are certain deadlines for team deadlines, but I think he is too much of a nice guy to enforce them.”
As the season crawls toward its conclusion, Wagstaff hasn’t had much time to relish his time as a coach or to think about what he’ll miss most. The obvious thoughts that continue to permeate are the experiences and relationships he is thankful to build each season.
“I am starting to think, ‘I only have a few practices left,’ ” he said. “(Wednesday) was Senior Day. It was our last home match, it will be my last match coaching at Mead High School as a team. We are still in the heat of battle, so I haven’t really stepped back and thought about it. It is going to be tough for me when I finally hand in my keys.”
Retirement will grant him more time to play tennis. During the season he’s so busy coaching his team that he doesn’t get to let loose. But that will change in about a month after the state tournament.
“It is hard for me to picture. (Wagstaff coaching) was just such an inherent part of my life,” Ryan Wagstaff said. “I think the retirement will be a big deal for him. He is practically bionic from all of the tennis surgeries he’s had. We’ll see how it goes.”
“He might not move as fast, but the ball still goes where he wants it,” Wrigley said.
As he shifts his focus away from coaching, his messages will continue to live on well after he disappears from the sidelines.
“For me personally, I always get enjoyment playing his kids knowing that the message I am giving is the same message I am giving mine,” Wrigley said. “And whenever I hit a shot, I still have Bill coaching me inside my head even though that was 20-plus years ago.”
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