The way Hugh Curtler tells it, it was a conversation with SMSU English professor Dave Pichaske that was the first seed of what would become the recently-released book, A Higher Level: Southwest State Women's Tennis 1979-1992.
"We were talking about the program, and as we talked, I got more excited," said Curtler, the retired professor emeritus of philosophy at SMSU and former women's tennis coach during those years. "Dave finally said, 'You know, we might have a book here.' The more we talked about that possibility, there was really only one person who would write it, and that was Dana (Yost)."
The recently released book chronicles his 14-year run as women's tennis coach at the university. During that time, the Pintos, as they were known then, won nine straight Northern Sun Conference titles; consistently placed in the top 20 nationally in the NAIA national tournament; produced 135 all-conference or all-NAIA District 13 players and 9 All-Americans; and had two winners of the Arthur Ashe Award, the tennis equivalent of the Heisman Trophy (Sharon DeRemer Williams, 1984, and Leslie Jacobsen Bosch, 1992). Curtler was named NAIA national Coach of the Year in 1990.
"During all of those years, I never once hit a ball during a match," said Curtler, deflecting the credit from himself. "But their play was consistently remarkable."
Research for the book was exhaustive, and in reading the book, you can tell Yost went above and beyond in telling the story.
The book evolved into more than a story about a prairie tennis team, said Yost, a 2008 alumnus. "The qualities that made those teams special, and what I ended up building the book around, is that they were like prairie pioneers all over again," he said. "It expanded into other issues more relevant to the rural experience."
The book also gives a deeply personal glimpse of Curtler and how events in his childhood affected him as an adult. "I had to drag that out," said Yost. "Hugh has a real depth of passion, and some things he didn't want to talk about, but they were so relevant to the book."
The book took about 18 or so months to write. Pichaske took the manuscript in late September for the editing process. Pichaske owns Ellis Press, which published the book.
About 14 versions of the book's prologue sit in a box in Yost's home. As Yost said when he interviewed past players, "Put me in your shoes on those outdoor courts, make me feel what you felt, make me smell the corn plant." He went back several times and re-interviewed players, until he was satisfied.
Yost is a former newspaper sports editor and editor who grew up in Minneota and lived in Cottonwood while he was editor at the Marshall Independent. Health issues nudged him out of journalism, and today he is a successful writer/poet living in Forest City, Iowa.
Curtler is a quiet, proud man who takes a lot of satisfaction with what his teams accomplished. The book talks a lot about how he was able to get the quality of players necessary to compete on the national stage, several times against Division I opponents. There was no recruiting budget, after all, and the team practiced indoors, on a wooden gym floor, when it was too inclement to go outdoors. And while other players from other programs would snicker about such facilities, Curtler said the quickness of the surface helped with footwork, racquet preparation and hand-and-eye coordination. In his view, it was a plus.
There's not a lot of coaches, anywhere, who come out of a philosophy program. The team took many long van rides during those years, and that left a lot of time for introspective conversation with the coach. The players all mentioned how Curtler's approach to academics and tennis has affected their lives positively since graduation.
"Academics were important, and we had the type of players who wanted to be good students," said Curtler, who at the time headed the university's Honors Program.
Several international players came to SMSU during his tenure, and the book tells their stories and how Curtler was able to recruit them from halfway around the globe to come to Marshall. "Those players were used to playing on clay, a slow surface, so when they got here, and were hitting off a gym floor, it took some adjustments," he said.
Keeping the program at a high level began with a relationship with Bob Pivek, the high school coach at Coon Rapids, one of the top programs in Minnesota. Pivek sent two of his daughters to play for Curtler. As the program grew, and the wins began to pile up, it became a place players wanted to come, despite the facility shortcomings and lack of scholarship dollars.
When it came to recruiting, Curtler said he approached it at times "by hook and by crook" and mentioned a healthy dose of luck. It's clear he was also very, very good in relating to the women and their parents on a very human level.
In the scope of athletics, Curtler said his team's story "is just a speck of sand on a beach." But, as is his way, "It deserved the best I had."
The book sells for $15 and is available at the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council offices in downtown Marshall, the SMSU Barnes & Noble Campus Store and online at www.ellispress.com. After Christmas the book will be available at www.amazon.com. A Kindle version is for sale now on Amazon.
Yost will have two book signings on Saturday, Dec. 15. The first, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., will be at the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council in downtown Marshall. The second, from 6 a.m.-10 p.m., will be in the R/A Facility on campus during the SMSU basketball doubleheader against Concordia-St. Paul.