POLSON — For three decades, Bob Hislop has been directing the Polson tennis program with a special blend of coaching acumen and kindness.
When you've been doing it that long, taking a year off because of a pandemic is a real jolt to your system.
"I got to understand what spring was like last year, but I sure missed the heck out of tennis," said Hislop, whose girls and boys teams will debut at home Friday against Libby and Hamilton. "It will be very special — girl wise especially we were wishing we could play last year. You felt terrible for the seniors. This year's group, it's very special they're out there playing."
So much was lost for western Montana's standout senior athletes last spring that it's hard to know where to start. Hislop, a University of Montana grad and a member of the Montana Coaches Hall of Fame, had a girls squad that was a strong contender to take top team honors along with contending for doubles and singles gold in Class A.
The blessing for that group — a blessing that so many other spring sports teams do not share — is that all the girls are back from two years ago.
"They feel like they got a year stolen from them, so they have a lot of fire in the belly and they're ready to go," Hislop said. "We do stuff to make practices beneficial but fun. Then they want more. Whether it's 35 degrees or 75 degrees at practice, they want to stay there and do more. It's very exciting for us as coaches."
Hislop's four leaders on his girls team include state placewinners Berkley Ellis, Qia Harlan, Ara Mercer and Megan Rost. Together the quartet helped the Pirates take second as a team in the 2019 State A meet in Kalispell. Ellis and Harlan lost the state championship doubles match to a team they beat in divisional finals.
"It was a tough pill to swallow and wait," Hislop said, "but everybody has done their work now and we're ready to go."
The added challenge for all of western Montana's spring sports athletes is staying healthy amid a pandemic. Like all coaches in the area, Hislop will stress to his players the importance of wearing a mask when sitting around one another.
The ultimate goal is to get to state in May with everyone eligible to compete. In the mean time, Hislop is enjoying time spent with his athletes.
"It's that interaction," he offered. "I got out of teaching a couple years ago and I miss the kids. It's just fun being around young people that want to learn and get better and try to excel at what they do."
For what it's worth, the weather looks as though it will cooperate for Friday's action in Polson. The forecast calls for cloudy skies with a high near 50 degrees.
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 15 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at email@example.com.