Boy’s tennis coach Ned Fennessy retires after 23 years

Friends, family and team members applaud retiring high school tennis coach Ned Fennessy after he spoke about his career at the Wharf Restaurant last Saturday. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

After 23 years and more than 260 wins as the coach of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) boys tennis team, 80-year-old Frank Edward Fennessy III is stepping down at the top of his game. “Last year’s team won the State championship and this year’s team has a good chance of repeating,” he said.

Family members, friends, coaching associates from rival schools, present and former team members, and their parents packed the back room of the Wharf Restaurant in Edgartown Saturday, June 1, to wish the avuncular, well-liked coach well and show their appreciation for his years of service.

The event was organized by Paul Pertile, the Edgartown Yacht Club tennis pro and the team’s assistant coach.

Coach Fennessy has been called “Ned” since his grandfather insisted that his nickname be picked from a hat containing names that rhymed with Ed. It is, like many of his stories, a funny tale. His memory is prodigious and as he held court at one of the tables he greeted each of the well-wishers by name and shared many of his stories.

After hors d’oeuvres and a lavish spread prepared by the Wharf staff and served by Wharf owner and 1992 MVRHS tennis team captain Will Coogan, coach Fennessy spoke.

In his modest way he said that he got the coaching job because he was the only one who applied for it.

He recounted the time in the spring of 1990. He had retired to the Vineyard from a 30-year career as a manufacturing engineer at Honeywell where he managed the production of computers in the 1960s and 70s. He was watching one of the high school tennis matches. MVRHS basketball coach and fledging tennis coach Jay Schofield sidled up to him and asked him if he would be interested in taking the job of coach.

Mr. Schofield knew of Ned’s tennis prowess. Ned learned to play at an early age from his father, an accomplished player, who played, and lost, to one of tennis’s all-time greats, Big Bill Tilden, at the renowned Longwood Cricket Club in the national doubles championships in the 1920s.

He applied and the following spring he had the job, agreeing to a four-year term. He said he extended his stay when players asked him to stay. “You get attached to the kids,” he said. “It’s satisfying to see them get better, to make progress.”

He said he has used a four-part coaching philosophy to guide his teams. One, “No screaming. It’s not in my nature.” He said that tennis experts say that 75 to 80 per cent of all tennis points are won by an error being made. “Screaming because of errors never made sense to me.”

Two, academics come before tennis. “If a player comes to me and says he has an important paper due or a test to study for I would say, ‘sure.’ I take them at face value. For players who try to take advantage of that, it’s their loss.”

Three, “sportsmanship is critical. No swearing, no racket throwing. One warning and then the player is off the court. Regardless of when and who they are playing.”

Four, “I want the boys to win. It’s the name of the game. As long as they are giving 100 percent on the court, even if they lose, it is all I can ask.”

Mr. Fennessy recounted parts of his story to the Times by phone. He grew up in Yarmouth Port during the depression. His family moved to Ashland during World War II where he graduated from Ashland High School in 1950. He enlisted in the Navy for four years and then used the GI bill to major in industrial engineering at Northeastern University. He graduated in 1961.

Mr. Fennessy then went to work for Honeywell, first in Boston for 15 years, and then in Minneapolis for another 15 years. “We designed the processes, the assembly lines, for the production of many of Honeywell’s products,” he said.

His family’s association with the Vineyard began in the mid 19th century when his great-grandfather Henry Fennessy built the Hotel Naumkeag in Oak Bluffs where Ned and his family would often stay during the summers. He built his own house on the Island in the 1970s.

Mr. Fennessy continued to play tennis throughout his adult years and even hit with his teams until his knees started bothering him several years ago. He and a friend started the Chamberlain Pines Tennis Club in the 1973 in the town of Holliston, when he lived nearby and had trouble finding courts to play on. He started teaching tennis at his club. When he relocated to Minnesota in 1975 with Honeywell he continued to play and teach tennis.

His first Vineyard team, in 1991, had 5 losses and 7 wins, dropping to 2 and 11 in 1992. With the exception of his 1994 team, which he said came down with year-ending “senioritis,” the next 20 teams made it to the year-end team tournament.

He never brags about his accomplishments, and he attributes his latest teams’ success to Vineyard Youth Tennis, a free tennis teaching program for Island kids. He said that they have been developing “superior players.”

MVRHS athletic director Mark McCarthy, said, “Ned’s dedication to the sport and to the team is second to none. I think we will see him around the courts next year even if he isn’t coaching. I don’t think we will find a replacement for Ned. We can only hope to find someone to follow him.”