October 23, 2017
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How Caribou’s tennis coach keeps winning, even with fewer students

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff
Updated:
Staff photo/Kevin Sjoberg | BDN
Staff photo/Kevin Sjoberg | BDN
John Habeeb speaks to one of his Caribou tennis players, Ashley Matlock, during a changeover in a match this spring. Habeeb was named PVC Class B girls' coach of the year, while Matlock made the all-conference second team in singles.

CARIBOU, Maine — Anyone who is curious about the secret of Caribou High School’s longstanding tennis success needn’t look too hard.

It’s right out in the open.

Just take a drive through the country’s northeasternmost city on any summer weekday, and kids of all ages will be gathered at the Teague Park tennis courts, having fun and learning the game from John Habeeb.

“The park is right in the center of town and you drive by and John’s out there all day long teaching tennis,” said Caribou High School athletic administrator Dave Wakana. “That’s where he hooks the kids on tennis. That’s where he really teaches them all the skills.

“He loves tennis and he’s really dedicated to the sport.”

Habeeb, 52, has served as tennis director for the parks and recreation department since the summer after his freshman year of college in 1983. He is in his 30th year as the boys varsity tennis coach at the high school and his 27th season as the girls tennis coach at his alma mater.

Habeeb has guided both teams to more than 300 victories. The girls are 335-49 under his watch while the boys program scored win No. 300 against Houlton last week and is 305-97 since he became head coach in 1988.

“You’re planting seeds,” he said of his summer work. “You know you’re not going to see the fruits until the future but that’s what you’re doing. I’ve always loved the sport and it’s given a lot to me so I’m always trying to give back to it.”

That Caribou High School’s tennis program ranks among the best in eastern and northern Maine annually — despite no indoor courts in town to offset the long winters and steadily decreasing enrollment — is a tribute to Habeeb’s determination and tennis acumen. And his players’ willingness to listen, learn and execute.

“We still compete pretty well with the other teams out there,” he said. “The fact we can be competitive by the end of the season amazes me every year, but our good athletes are just as good as anybody else’s good athletes. I’ve always said if we can get seven good athletes every year we’ll be competitive.”

Habeeb was the Caribou tennis MVP as a senior in 1982 before attending the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, where he played third singles and second doubles as a senior. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history.

Once he was hired to teach summer tennis back in his hometown in 1983 by longtime parks and recreation director Kathy Mazzuchelli, there was little doubt Habeeb would find his way into education — both on and off the court.

“That’s how I got into teaching,” said Habeeb, a middle-school math teacher for special education pupils. “I realized how cool it was and how easy it seemed, and the kids themselves kind of embraced me.”

Habeeb got local youngsters started with tennis as early as age 5 with a summer program he calls “Tennis Tykes” that includes sport-specific games designed to make the class “the funnest hour of their lives.”

Similar summer classes were available for kids through age 8 with individual lessons for older players and afternoon practices.

“When I started coaching, the [high school] girls program just blossomed naturally but the boys were already playing Little League and were very good baseball players,” said Habeeb. “But some of them decided to take tennis lessons and when they took the lessons and learned what the sport was all about, they got hooked on it.

“There were some people who weren’t happy with the tennis program at the beginning because it detracted from the baseball and softball programs.”

Habeeb’s ability to attract both the masses — as many as 250 youngsters participated in Caribou’s summer tennis program at one point — and top talent to the sport has led to considerable success on the high school level.

Caribou’s boys varsity team has qualified for postseason play in 27 of Habeeb’s first 29 years, with an undefeated Class B state championship run in 2008 and eight other regional final appearances.

The Vikings’ girls squad has experienced even greater success, winning four consecutive Class A state titles from 1992 through 1995 at the start of a 14-year stretch during which Caribou never lost a regular-season match.

Overall, the Caribou girls have won four state titles and nine regional titles under Habeeb while advancing to 16 eastern or northern Maine championship matches and qualifying for postseason play in 25 of the last 26 years.

“Tennis to him is like basketball is to a basketball coach,” said Wakana. “It’s a passion, he just loves it and treats it as a top sport and the kids respect his tennis knowledge. They realize this guy knows what he’s doing and that they can get better if they listen to him.

“He’s made Caribou tennis what it is.”

But times are changing for tennis.

Both Caribou teams are 7-0 this spring but the boys’ roster numbers just seven — the exact number needed to fill all slots in a varsity match. The girls’ team has 11 players.

Those numbers are one more reflection of Aroostook County’s shrinking population base as more and more young adults stay south after college in search of better career prospects.

“I almost worry about it up here now because a number of the local communities have stopped their recreation departments doing summer tennis,” Habeeb said. “Van Buren, Madawaska and Fort Kent used to come to my summer tournament and to Presque Isle’s summer tournament and now they hardly send anybody.

“And you’d think in 30 years of coaching I’d have a lot of kids whose parents played for me, but that’s just not true, I’ve had very few. I just feel pretty fortunate that we’re still doing what we’ve been doing even though the town’s population has dwindled a little and it’s harder to get the athletes because there’s only so many of them to go around.”

Caribou is ranked second in both girls and boys tennis in Class B North this spring, with the girls team returning intact from the 2016 edition that reached the regional semifinals before being ousted by eventual champion Camden Hills of Rockport 3-2.

The boys squad also is undefeated after reaching last year’s Class B North final, with a 3-2 victory over fellow top contender John Bapst of Bangor already to its credit.

And while Habeeb contemplated easing up on his summer schedule last year, he fully expects to continue coaching the Vikings for years to come.

“I’ve been here my whole life,” he said. “I went to Portland for school and stayed there a little while but I always gravitated home and I’m as proud as I can be to be a representative of Caribou High School and our community. It’s meant a lot to me.”

 


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