Dave Ronning has worked to take steps forward with the Alexandria tennis programs in his 20 years of coaching. But now, he's taking a step back.
Ronning is retiring from the Alexandria girls tennis head coaching position this coming fall and is waiting to make a final decision on his status with the boys team that plays in the spring season. What started as a way to connect with his children through the sport has turned into a love lost for the structure of high school tennis in some ways.
"I've always said the thing that will get me out of coaching is other coaches, and there have been some very unethical coaches out there that are getting to me," Ronning said. "I have a very hard time dealing with those people anymore. Then there's the way tournaments are run. Even our section tournament doesn't go by the ethical means and the discipline and sportsmanship that comes with it. That's getting lost, and it's driving me nuts."
In a traditional tennis match, each team has its four best singles competitors and its three best doubles teams. When schools compete, kids traditionally play against the athlete ranked equally across from them. The first team to win four of the seven matches wins the competition.
Where Ronning feels it's started to change is that some schools are no longer putting their athletes in traditional spots in the order. While it's not an illegal strategy to have a better player compete in a lower-level match in an attempt to get a sure team point, it's seen as unethical by some.
"It would really get to him," longtime assistant coach John Schmidt said. "I know other coaches feel the same way. But he can sleep comfortably knowing that his teams never did any of that."
"When I complain about it, I come off as the bad guy," Ronning said. "I don't want to see that change in the game continue. Let's get back to ethics, respect, sportsmanship and discipline. It's just taken a bad turn because of some of the coaches out there. I think it's the right time for me to get out of there and let someone new take over."
One candidate for the coaching vacancy has worked with Ronning over the last couple of years, including the 2019 trip to state for the boys team.
"There's only one candidate I would pick, and that's Nick Jansen," Ronning said. "He's phenomenal, and he's one of a kind. I would hate to see a school system lose someone like that, so I hope and pray he gets it."
Where it all started
Tennis has been in Ronning's blood from a young age. Growing up in a competitive household with 12 siblings, the love for the game started early on -- especially when that meant he could compete against his brothers.
"I was probably eight years old when I started hitting tennis balls," Ronning said. "My brothers ran a tennis camp in Parkers Prairie, so it all kind of started from there. I guess you could say I've been doing this for about 50 years."
In the early 1970s, Ronning's oldest brother helped start the tennis program at Parkers Prairie. The big family from a small town preached competition, which often led to family rivalries.
"It was never friendly," Ronning said, laughing. "We're very competitive– all four of us boys. My two oldest brothers set the stage. My second oldest brother ended up going pro for several years. He always ended up beating my oldest brother. They played college tennis together, which was pretty cool. But when we played each other, it was never friendly. We always wanted to win, and that atmosphere was fun in our eyes."
Ronning's edge carried over to coaching. Schmidt saw his drive to win even with the racket out of his hands.
"He'd be the first to tell you that growing up, his family didn't have a lot of money," Schmidt said. "He's just the hardest worker you'll ever see. He's as competitive as they come. The thing about him as a coach is, win or lose, he wanted his team to leave it all out on the court every time. It's kind of a cliché, but he wouldn't be happy if his teams didn't give it all. He wanted them to be sportsmanlike and to just go for it."
Ronning was a three-sport athlete in high school. In his senior year on the football field, a shoulder injury hindered his athletic career after graduating.
"I tore my shoulder up pretty bad, and I basically suffered through basketball and tennis my senior year," Ronning said. "After that, I pretty much put my tennis racket away for 17 years. My shoulder was so bad that I eventually had to get surgery. Once I got the surgery, I got the fire back for tennis again."
By the time Ronning was ready to get back into the sport, he had kids of his own who were ready too.
"When I had my two boys coming up, I wanted to be able to play against them," Ronning said. "I wanted to give them the competition they needed. I started playing with them, and I played in tournaments too. That got me going. But it killed me to have tennis out of sight and out of mind. I played in the state tournament and then basically just quit. It was very hard. My brothers kept playing and coaching when I couldn't do anything."
Ronning's goal was to coach his two sons through high school, but the Alexandria boys coaching job wasn't open. However, when the girl's position became available, he saw it as an opportunity to get his foot in the door.
"I kind of got lucky when the boys job opened up after three years of coaching girls," Ronning said. "My plan was to be done when my boys graduated, but I loved it. There were too many things I loved about coaching to quit, so I decided to stay on for a while."
Ronning reached levels no other Alexandria tennis coach had ever been at when he took the 2019 boys team to the state tournament. But some of his fondest memories came with sharing moments on the court with his kids.
"That was priceless," Ronning said. "Just the experience of being able to be with them more was worth it. To be there on the courts with them when they made it to the state tournament is something I can't put a price on. I'll never forget that. I think they enjoyed it too."
The game has changed
Ronning showed an ability to change with a fluent game. Despite being away from tennis for 17 years, he adjusted to a new style that was sweeping the sport.
"When my brothers and I played, the game was all serve and volley," Ronning said. "You needed to get to the net on every point. Nowadays, you stay at the baseline. Rackets are made to stay at the baseline and support those players. The footwork has also changed tremendously. We focus on that more than anything else. It's all about footwork."
Ronning embraced the changes and saw them as a positive movement for the sport.
"It's a good way for the game to evolve in my eyes," Ronning said. "Kids have gotten so much stronger, faster and quicker. It's been fun to evolve with it. I tell this story all the time about when I got back into tennis. I used to go down to the courts all by myself. I would go through the footwork that I saw on TV. I wouldn't even bring a racket sometimes. I would go through all of it just so I could learn what I needed to teach."
Ronning has seen tennis grow in his own community at the same pace it's grown worldwide.
"Back in the 80s it was a booming sport, but then it died down for a while," Ronning said. "Now, it's growing a ton again just in the last 5-10 years. I definitely think our programs are in a good spot. If you get good numbers as we have, you can find quality kids. You can teach them. I'm thrilled with where the programs are at right now."
Both Ronning and Schmidt attribute success to their student leaders, especially in recent years.
"During the matches, we watch all of our players cheering each other on," Schmidt said. "There's some good bonding between our boys and girls teams too. We have great alumni too. Those players have been immensely important for us, and all of these things get people to want to play tennis."
Ronning doesn't have an exact timetable for when he will decide on coaching the boys team, but he doesn't plan on hanging up the racket for good.
"I need to take a few months to let my body and my mind heal," Ronning said. "I already did a camp this summer, and I've been asked to do it again in the coming years. I can't see myself stepping away completely because I love it too much. I want to respect whoever takes over the helm. I'd love to make myself available if they need any help, but that's up to them. I love this game so much to let it go completely."