In professional sports, even sometimes in college, there has been the rare species known as the player-coach.
Sam Sweeney gives a new meaning to that term.
The former Prairie Ridge tennis player, one of the best in the school’s history, is the current Wolves coach. At the same time, he is attending North Central College and capping his collegiate career with the NCAA Division III Cardinals.
“It’s been a crazy spring,” Sweeney said. “I’m playing at North Central, teaching lessons [at South Barrington Tennis Academy], training and lifting and running. It’s a pretty tough [schedule].”
Sweeney was a three-time Northwest Herald Player of the Year. He shared the honor with doubles partner Craig Dudgeon in 2004, won it alone in 2005, then shared it with Crystal Lake South’s Ryan King in 2006.
Sweeney started his college career at Illinois-Chicago on a full athletic scholarship. As a sophomore, he transferred to Illinois and practiced with a junior college team because he wasn’t yet strong enough to play for the Fighting Illini.
Illinois’ coaching staff recommended him to Michigan State’s staff, and Sweeney headed to East Lansing, but there were problems with classes that were not transferred, so he couldn’t become eligible.
He returned to Illinois, but by the time he got there he had transferred so much he again couldn’t become eligible.
At that point, Sweeney just wanted to play, so he joined his friends, Crystal Lake Central graduates Ben and Gabe Youel, at North Central.
“I got the hunger there to play again,” Sweeney said. “I had one class left with my degree [in biology] and only have a class on Monday night. In January, the [coaching] position was available. It has been awesome.”
When Sweeney has had conflicts with college and high school matches, former Wolves coach Jessica Fetzner has filled in. Sweeney’s flexibility with North Central has helped, as his college coach arranges some matches on Sundays.
Prairie Ridge athletic director Patti Hie said Fetzner’s support of Sweeney was instrumental in getting him back to the school.
“We knew what a quality young man he is, and Jessica was so supportive,” Hie said. “Jessica and freshman-sophomore girls coach Erin Palese have stepped in. We wouldn’t have been able to do this without Jessica and Erin. We all felt this would be the perfect person for the job.
“Jessica felt strongly about his ability. He’s kind of a self-made man with the way he has worked to become one of the best players ever in McHenry County.”
Hie said the Wolves’ players like that their coach is such an established player.
“When he misses a match, the boys understand why, and that he’s not just going to a Cubs game,” Hie said.
It also helped that, because of results in the fall season, Sweeney still could qualify for the NCAA D-III National Tournament with an abbreviated schedule this spring.
“Our [North Central] team usually gets beat up, but some coaches want their No. 1 guys to play me,” Sweeney said. “I’m going to finish out with my degree, then play a little bit and see what I can do.”
Sweeney may eventually teach high school and coach, so this season has provided some early experience for that.
“They’re great kids and I enjoy seeing the sport from a different perspective,” Sweeney said. “It’s harder to coach than it is to play.”
• Joe Stevenson covers high school sports for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.