Entering her 30th season as ASU women’s tennis head coach, Sheila McInerney has made countless memories while at the helm of the tennis program. Still, she reflects on two upset victories as her favorite moments.
“When I first started, Stanford, Cal, USC and UCLA were clearly the top in the conference,” McInerney said. “I thought we’d never beat those schools.”
She said her best memories are beating all these teams for the first time, particularly her alma mater USC.
McInerney graduated from USC in 1980, where she was a four-time All-American tennis player. After playing professionally for three years, she returned to USC as an assistant coach for one season.
She was quick to add that beating Stanford was also on the top of her list of accomplishments at ASU. Her defeat of the Cardinal in 2008 remains the only time the Sun Devils have taken down the national tennis powerhouse.
Over the course of her time at ASU, McInerney has seen women’s tennis grow from a fringe sport to something that universities now spend thousands of dollars to maintain and improve.
“When I first got here, it wasn’t technically a full-time job, (and) there was no assistant coach,” McInerney said. “I kind of ran around like a chicken with its head cut off. You’re coaching six courts at once. You don’t show one kid enough love, and they’re yelling at you, ‘Where have you been?’”
She now has one full-time assistant, Clint Letcher, and one volunteer, Ford Oliver.
Letcher was hired six years ago and was recently promoted to associate head coach. After playing men’s tennis for ASU, he said McInerney sought him out to be an assistant.
“I always admired her and her program,” Letcher said. “(I came back), because we had a good relationship when I was a player.”
As McInerney has aged, Letcher has taken over most of the on-court duties, such as hitting to the girls in practice. Occasionally, Letcher said McInerney will get out there and play against them, though.
“I love it when Sheila jumps out there and grabs a racket and jumps in there and plays doubles against the girls,” Letcher said. “She’s still got the strongest hands, and she doesn’t back off at all. It’s always fun to see her out there.”
Sophomore Desirae Krawczyk echoed the thoughts of everyone involved in the program and said McInerney is more than a coach; she’s a mentor and someone to whom students can look up.
“I love Sheila a lot,” Krawczyk said. “She’s kind of like a mom to us. She keeps us in check, and she keeps us moving.”
McInerney said she knows she is more than just a coach for her players, and that has been a key to her success.
“Relationships are the most important thing,” McInerney said. “You want to win, there’s no question, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”
The relationships McInerney has fostered extend past the players, as she and her coaching staff are very close, too.
Letcher said coaching is a group effort, rather than there being defined roles as head coach and assistant.
“It’s mostly a team as a coaching staff,” Letcher said. “We all have respect for each other, and all the students look at us the same, I think.”
With her success at ASU — she eclipsed 400 wins last season — McInerney said she has garnered interest from other programs but has turned them down.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” McInerney said. “I’ve had opportunities to go other places, but this has been a really good fit for me, I think.”
The ascent of the women’s tennis program under her hasn’t come without hard work, though.
Even as a sophomore, Krawczyk has noticed the effort McInerney puts toward coaching the team.
“She’s always on the court with us,” Krawczyk said. “If you don’t (have it down), she’ll spend so much time on the court with you. Not as much as you want, but as much as you need.”
Although she has led the program to uncharted territories of success, the job isn’t all about wins and losses for McInerney. She said she takes pride in the fact that her players don’t only improve on the court but have a good experience off the court as well.
“I think the kids leave here having a real good impression of Arizona State (and) their college career,” McInerney said. “And to me, that’s really important.”
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