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Delta's Cleland turns 'temporary' coaching job into lifetime achievement as Indiana's all-time winningest tennis coach

Delta's Cleland turns 'temporary' coaching job into lifetime achievement as Indiana's all-time winningest tennis coach
BY: CHRIS LANDIS May 30, 7:30pm

Tim Cleland might have taken a coaching job ‘temporarily’ back in 1989, but what he has accomplished since has permanently been written into the history books. 

Recently Cleland’s Delta Eagles recorded not only a win that prolonged the girls tennis season but marked an even bigger victory, as Cleland became the winningest coach in Indiana high school tennis history when his win total climbed to 1,025. Cleland has since added another milestone victory as the Eagles advanced to the State Finals for a fourth time in school history.

“It's been fun reflecting on all the players I've coached for the past 30 years and all the great memories associated with those teams,” Cleland said. “But other than that, it doesn't mean too much — records are made to be broken, and this one will fall someday, also.”

Cleland is in a very select group of Indiana high school coaches in any sport with more than 1,000 career wins. Coach Cleland joins Steve Shondell of Muncie Burris volleyball, Ken Schreiber of LaPorte baseball, and Rick Miller of Floyd Central tennis in the very rare 1,000-win club.

Cleland only took the job coaching Delta’s boys tennis team in 1989 on a temporary basis. With the exception of 1990, he’s coached every season for that program since then, and the girls program every year since 1995. During that time, Cleland’s teams have a total of 51 sectional titles, 37 regional championships and nine state finals appearances combined between the boys and girls programs. 

“I started coaching in the fall of 1989 when the Delta coach at the time, Mrs. Pat Ervin, took maternity leave and I agreed to ‘fill in’ for one season. I'm now finishing season number 54 between boys and girls tennis,” Cleland explained.  

“It's safe to say I had no idea my one season of temporary fill-in work would lead to this.”

Coach Cleland has helped Delta Tennis become one of Indiana’s premier high school tennis programs. In his 54 seasons, more than half have ended at the IHSAA State Finals in team, doubles, or singles competition. Half of those teams also reached the Top 10 State Rankings, and over 80 percent of those teams have been ranked in the Top 20 in the state poll.

Off the court, Cleland looks at the success of another program that he holds close to his heart. The SmashCancer program started in May of 2012 when Delta hosted Yorktown in a girls’ tennis match. The two county rivals combined to raise more than $1,100 for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life program.

In addition to selling multi-colored T-shirts representing the battle against a wide range of cancers, a ceremony was held recognizing several cancer survivors and family members hit out “honorary first serves,” there was a white balloon release, and homemade signs carried by each player honored a cancer victim or cancer survivor, and SmashCancer was well on its way. 

“Starting SmashCancer in 2012 has been a standout memory. This event has raised more than $41,000 for local cancer organizations and has spread to many sites statewide,” Cleland said.  

“I also treasure the memories associated with nine trips to the IHSAA Team State Finals and 24 trips to the Singles and Doubles State Finals. But mostly I think about all the relationships with players and families — much more precious to me than trophies and titles. I have a lot of fun stories and should probably write a book someday.”

Cleland’s boys and girls teams have won 38 IHSAA regional titles, which is a significant percentage of the 80-plus regional titles that Delta has won in all sports in the history of the school.

The Eagles have participated in the State Team Finals in boys tennis in 2004, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2016 and in girls tennis in 2000, 2011, 2018, and 2019.

The girls won the Regional title without losing a set and will compete at North Central High School this weekend in the State Finals. 

Cleland talked about why this season has been so much fun and once again pointed out it’s about more than the W’s.

“This team is not the highest skilled team I've ever had — that award would go to our boys and girls teams in the 2004 to 2007 range, when we were loaded with elite singles and doubles talent. But this season has been such a joy because we have two freshmen, three sophomores, and two seniors in the lineup, we are 24-1, and have beaten seven state-ranked teams,” he said. 

“In addition, we raised $8,000 in SmashCancer, made Team Academic All-State, and have had a record total of 40 girls (including 17 freshmen) on the team. Everything has gone our way this spring.”

And he’s not done teaching on the tennis court which is what he considers an extended classroom. There are still chapters to be written in this book. 

“We get a lot of attention for winning, but in all honesty, it's not about the winning. It's about using a lifetime sport like tennis to teach lifetime lessons like working hard, sacrificing individual glory for team success, supporting each other in good times and bad, helping others succeed, and aiming high in your goals,” Cleland said. “That's what we will continue to preach in the coming seasons.”   

[PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Landis/STATE CHAMPS!]