PHOENIXVILLE - It is a story of rags to riches.
From humble beginnings, the Phoenixville High School boys tennis program has become an outstanding one for the past 50 years under head coach Leo Scoda. It is an exemplary program that produced dynasties in the former Ches-Mont League as well as the current Pioneer Athletic Conference that began with the spring 1987 season. It started as the PAC-8 with eight member schools and began as the PAC-10 two years later.
During the past half century, the Phantoms have recorded 34 championship teams as well as numerous other singles and doubles individual successes. The Phantoms have compiled 621 team victories under Scoda’s guidance and leadership.
They prospered to an incredible height with 12 undefeated league campaigns as well as eight undefeated overall years in their history.
Last Saturday, May 11, Phoenixville had an official celebration of the milestone season at the new Phoenixville Area Middle School building. Nearly 150 former Phantom players and their families attended the event to honor Scoda and to renew acquaintances with former teammates as well as old friends.
Besides their own personal families, Phoenixville has also become one giant boys tennis family with Scoda as the grandfather figure and father figure to all of those who played for the man who is also a retired biology teacher at PAHS as well as the current mayor of the borough.
Evan Davis played second singles and then first singles at Phoenixville with highlight years in 1980 and 1981.
“Those were great teams,” said Davis. “We had a really deep team. One year we won every match 7-0 except one when I lost against Downingtown and we won 6-1. I can’t believe it has been 50 years. We had to all make it. It is fun to see everyone and the pictures.”
Davis now has four children of his own, who are all ice hockey players since the family lived in Toronto, Canada, for 3 1/2 years when Evan was stationed there on business. But they all play tennis as well to keep with tradition.
Phoenixville went 71-0 from 1979-83 overall and 78-0 in the Ches-Mont League. The Phantoms proceeded to win 22 straight PAC-10 titles from 1987-2009, which included an incredible 196-0 streak.
Included in the rich history were two state champion doubles teams. The first one was by Tim McAvoy and Rob Vance in 1974 and then again in 2007 in Class AA with Kyle MacLelland and Tom McAvoy, Tim’s son. Scoda said the first state championship doubles team provided the benchmark for tennis to become such an integral part of the Phoenixville community.
“He was absolutely like a father figure to us with our years together,” Davis said of Scoda. “I remembered we watched ‘Star Wars’ movies together at a tennis tournament we had when it came out. It was like and still is a family.”
Scoda remains in communication with his former players regularly and they in turn with him. They also still connect with each other from the bonds they originally developed at Phoenixville.
Scoda has had his older players help instruct the younger ones during summer clinics and lessons. They also help run the annual “Orange Crush” Tournament for youngsters of all ages. That, too, has helped to perpetuate the tradition and camaraderie of the group.
Tom Mirabile was an impressive first doubles player for the Phantoms back in 1981.
“I still live here and my whole family still loves tennis,” said Mirabile. “We go to the U.S. Open and stay in it.
“The most impressive thing about coach is he doesn’t realize how he inspired us as young players to get better,” said Mirabile. “We played year-round. He didn’t force us to. He invited us. He took us to tournaments. We traveled to see other players who were better. We worked hard. We weren’t always the most talented team. But we were athletic and had camaraderie. We were definitely as a group able to duplicate. It was the magic of coach Scoda. He was able to teach us life lessons as well.”
The Phantoms beat a lot of teams with their depth that stretched into the doubles area, whereas many of their opponents just had one or two top players before there was a definite dropoff. The Phantoms, instead, boasted players from numbers 1-8 who had similar abilities.
“That was another thing coach Scoda cultivated,” said Mirabile. “He was a leader, a quiet guy and unselfish.”
Mirabile recalled Vance teaching him about tennis when he was at the initial stages and had never picked up a racket before. Now he stands at the other extreme as an adult who still plays the game.
Assistant coach Ryan Curley, a former Phantom player, gave the welcome and introduced former players like Ray Hoving (1964), the first Phantom singles player; player; Eric Close (1987), the first PAC champion; as well as 2013 seniors Jeff Potts, Ryan Cadigan, Chris Walsh and Ryan Starczewski.
Hoving actually asked Scoda to coach the tennis team. At first, the Phantoms did not have their own courts and played at the Fisher Courts on Manavon Street. The players used small wooden rackets. They also did not have uniforms or even a bus to take the team to away matches.
“Fortunately it goes up,” said Hoving. “This is just an outstanding accomplishment by an outstanding human being - Leo Scoda.”
Scoda and the Phoenixville netmen received numerous congratulatory letters and citations for their efforts.
Potts, Walsh and Cadigan, the Phantoms’ tri-captains, also made the surprise announcement of the establishment of the Leo Scoda Scholarship Award. That will require a large amount of funds to be raised in order to set up a permanent endowment.
“My cup runneth over,” said Scoda. “This has been such a spectacular day. I was able to see people I haven’t seen in years.
“This is not about me. That’s the thing that made this such a great day. It is about the team and the different players. It is about the team and commitment of the players. I have been blessed for 50 years that I had players that had this commitment.”
He is grateful for his family that includes former standout tennis players Canh Ho and Loi Huynh, who now have their own families with Scoda’s grandchildren.
Scoda said winning was just part of the rewards he has for the longevity in coaching tennis. Moreso, there is satisfaction in having the ability to reach out to touch young people at a critical point in their lives.
“I have no regrets about one minute of it,” said Scoda. “I made the right decision. You are all part of 50 years. There are so many people that shared in that winning tradition.”