Kristy Eckardt could only help but smile as she watched her father, long-time tennis coach Mike Pence, receive his induction into the Rochelle Township High School Hall of Fame in 2017.
The ceremony was perhaps the pinnacle of a well accomplished career for Pence, who taught at RTHS and coached both the Hub and Lady Hub tennis teams for well over 30 years. Eckardt has since taken over the reigns as head coach of the boys, but much of what she has learned about coaching and the game of tennis stems from the experiences she shared with her father.
“It was a really great experience,” Eckardt said. “We knew he had received a lot of support from the community, and to see him recognized in front of the whole stadium and to see everybody show their appreciation for what he did through coaching was really special for me.”
Eckardt has enjoyed tennis from the day she first picked up a racket as a little girl. She grew up watching the sport on television with her father, whose coaching career started before she was born, and she still remembers attending summer camps at the high school. When she arrived at RTHS as a freshman in the late 1990s, the two saw their tennis bond grow even stronger.
“He was always very calm and he expected a lot of us,” Eckardt said. “He never got upset with us and that’s something I really picked up on that I keep in mind while I’m coaching. I want the kids to enjoy what they’re doing and I want them to be more relaxed while they play… We always got along really well and I was really excited to play for him. He’d bite his sweater a little more when I was playing, but I knew he held me to a high standard which was encouraging.”
Eckardt enjoyed a great amount of success during her high school career, spending three seasons with the varsity team and reaching the IHSA State Championships twice. RTHS hired Jeff Truckenbrod as an assistant coach during Eckardt’s sophomore year, and over two decades later, Truckenbrod remains on the coaching staff as Eckardt’s assistant coach.
“What I enjoyed most about playing for my dad was the time we spent together,” Eckardt said. “We had a really great core group of players who I grew up playing with since grade school. The times we spent playing over the summer are probably some of my fondest memories.”
Eckardt went on to play collegiately with the Augustana Vikings, ranking fourth on the school’s all-time list in singles victories. She graduated college in 2005 before moving to Kewanee and eventually relocating to Oregon, where she currently lives with her husband Andy and her children David and Sarah. Eckardt, who also played basketball in both high school and college, said she began pursuing coaching opportunities as soon as she graduated college.
“I loved playing sports so much and I didn’t want that to end,” Eckardt said. “I always thought it would be cool to come back to Rochelle and take over for my dad… I had five tennis coaches in college, which was rough, so I always relied on what I learned from my dad growing up. Whether it was staying calm, playing one point at a time or not getting upset… I was also fortunate that Augustana was close to home, so my parents came to a lot of my meets.”
Pence retired from teaching in 2011 and his final year as a head coach was 2014. When Eckardt took over the Hub tennis program in 2015, Pence had the chance to work alongside his daughter, serving as a volunteer assistant until he and his wife Trish moved to Tennessee this past year. Pence knew his daughter would excel in tennis at an early age, and while he may not be around this coming season, he’s extremely proud to see how far his daughter has come.
“It was really fun having the opportunity to coach her,” Pence said. “Kristy played multiple sports growing up, but she really enjoyed tennis all through the years and she picked up on the strategy of tennis really quickly. She always anticipated really well and she still does when we play together. She really understands the game and she knows how to tell kids what they need to try because she can see where kids need to be positioned and where they need to improve.”
Nowadays, Eckardt helps run the youth summer camps at the high school, the same camps she participated in as a kid. She said both of her children have picked up tennis, and while they may be years away from reaching high school, Eckardt said having the opportunity to coach her kids, the same way her father coached her, would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“Oregon doesn’t have a team at the moment, but maybe they could co-op with Rochelle,” Eckardt said laughingly. “It would be nice to see David and Sarah play tennis. I would love to have that opportunity and hopefully they’ll be more receptive to the sport in high school.”