Evanston’s two newest head coaches will face different challenges in the fall of 2019.
For girls tennis coach Leanne Baker, the task will be to maintain — and improve on — the successful foundation built by former head coach Joyce Anderson.
The challenge for girls field hockey coach Jenner Johnson? To build that program virtually from scratch.
The District 202 Board of Education last month approved the hiring of both Baker and Johnson. A new leader for the Pomkits dance group, Priscilla Ruiz, earned the approval of the board on Monday.
Baker has served as the ETHS freshman coach since joining the staff in 2013. A former professional player, she will succeed Anderson, who decided to form a start-up business to help place student-athletes in colleges.
Anderson will remain at Evanston in her role as college-bound student-athlete advisor and the private start-up is an extension of those duties. She took over as head coach in 2011 after a year on the freshman level, and along with head boys coach Marcus Plonus created a feeder program that now includes approximately 50 boys and girls participating.
Anderson has also guided Wildkit players to spots in the Illinois High School Association state tournament for six straight years, the best streak in the program’s history. That includes a pair of state singles runner-up finishes by Anastasia Goncharova.
“Becoming a head coach was not on my radar,” Baker admitted, “but I’m super excited about this opportunity. I’ve had so much fun coaching the freshmen and it’s been so rewarding for me. Joyce started a really great program here and I’m really excited to keep building on what she did. I’m really lucky to have such a great foundation already for the program, and I want to keep them invested in the program and I want them to have fun at the same time.
“We graduated a lot of seniors (12), but of the girls coming back I think there are only 3 that I haven’t worked with before because they went straight to the varsity (as freshmen). One of the biggest challenges, I think, is to get them to jell together as a team because it’s a very individual sport. I want to teach them to think for themselves when they’re out there alone on the court, but I also want them to learn to support each other, too.”
Baker is a native of New Zealand who played in her first professional tournament at age 15 and was ranked No. 1 in the world as a doubles player at age 18. She embarked on a full-fledged pro career at age 18 and played nine years before a shoulder injury curtailed her playing career.
“I was also tired of traveling at that point because it seemed like I was a long way from home and I was always on a plane,” she recalled. “But I had used Chicago as my base when I was playing — I really love Chicago! — so at one point I just got my green card and I never left again. I’m super passionate about tennis, so I moved over to coaching.”
Baker is a full-time instructor at the North Shore Racquet Club in Northbrook. “Joyce Anderson was really an inspiration for me. She really taught me a lot of things and that streak of state (appearances) is really something that’s been huge for Evanston,” she said. “I’m hoping we can match that with more state runs.”
Anderson’s decision to step down from coaching was made easier by the fact that she knew she’d be leaving the program in more than capable hands.
“I had to make a choice, and it was a tough choice for me to make,” Anderson explained. “I’m really proud of the progress we made in the program in a relatively short amount of time. For our girls to experience the state tournament like that was great for all of them, and I have no doubt that Leanne will continue that. I’m really excited for Leanne.”
Anderson and partner Kim Michelson have formed the start-up called “Honest Game” to try to help athletes and colleges streamline the process for working together. Anderson has served on an NCAA advisory board and is attempting to make that process more equitable for all student-athletes seeking spots in colleges.
“This is not a recruiting service,” she pointed out. “All students deserve assistance and we want to make it as simple as possible for them. We’re trying to bring real transparency to the process because there are so many hoops they have to jump through right now. We want to provide data for the colleges and students and build a database they can trust. Then, the college coaches will have access to information they can have trouble getting otherwise.”
Johnson’s challenge in the fall will be to take over a fledgling program in field hockey, a sport that is new to the school (3 years in, including a junior varsity schedule the first year).
She certainly has the credentials as a player, after playing for two state championship teams at Lake Forest High School and serving as a co-captain for a University of Michigan squad that won the Big Ten title.
Johnson spent the last two seasons at a 700-student school in New York, where she was also assistant athletic director, before deciding to move back to Chicago.
“My husband’s in sales for a financial firm and when knew when we went to New York it would only be for two or three years,” she said. “Coaching has always really been on my radar, and now I get to be a part of something I’m really passionate about, just in a different way.
“The exciting part for me about this move is I know that Evanston athletics has such powerhouse teams, and I’m in at the start of a program that can grow into something great, too. The numbers in the program are pretty strong (50 players among the 3 levels) and I know they started the team just because there was so much interest from the girls themselves.
“I’m hoping to get girls who are coachable, and who are committed. Then developing their skills will be the next step. It will take time — and at this point I know we can only go up — but I’m hoping to get them to the top sooner, rather than later.”
Ruiz is the latest hire for the school. A 2010 graduate of ETHS, she performed for the Pomkits in all four years in high school and was a team captain as a senior. She has served as a volunteer assistant coach the past three years.