In a surprising turn of events, head men’s and women’s tennis coach Miriam Skrade formally stepped down from her post last week. In Skrade’s two years of work at Knox, she led the Prairie Fire to their best MWC tournament performance in nearly a decade during the 2014 season. Skrade’s husband, Visiting Professor of Biology Paul Skrade, was offered tenure track at Upper Iowa University, which precipitated the move. According to Skrade, however, the timing of her departure is far from ideal.
“I imagined myself here for many more years,” Skrade said. “The courts are being resurfaced, I’ve developed a relationship with the Galesburg tennis community, we have a growing alumni following and the current team is always looking ahead to the next practice, match or team gathering.”
Skrade broke the news to the team at the end of their spring break trip in Florida, citing a desire to keep no secrets from a group she termed her ‘larger family.’
“There were tears and they are nervous about who will take over, but on the whole they were incredibly supportive,” Skrade said. “They all have a close relationship with Paul, who has been their second biggest fan after me, some even as his students, so they were full of congratulations for him as well. It helps them to know we will miss them as much as they say they’ll miss us.”
The loss of Skrade will not just be felt on the courts; her presence will also be missed as a mentor and a friend, says junior Rohail Khan.
“She had a way of making sure everyone was equally represented on the team,” Khan said. “She would figure out what you wanted from the program and then she would make it happen. Everyone I’ve talked to has said they feel like they’re a part of something bigger than them.”
Khan’s comments were echoed by freshman Taytem Chapman.
“She has completely turned the program around,” Chapman said. “She was always willing to donate her time to a one-on-one lesson. She was very close to the team. She treated us like a second family.”
In that vein, Skrade cited that channeling player growth was one of her biggest accomplishments at Knox.
“My favorite part of coaching at Knox was having the opportunity to grow recreational tennis players into college competitors,” Skrade said. “These players were so coachable and maximized every moment on the court.”
Skrade also had the opportunity to coach already experienced players in seniors Karl Ruzgas and Walter Palmer on the men’s side as well as Chapman for the women. One of Skrade’s favorite moments was seeing Palmer’s hard work come to fruition against a dominant Grinnell team in 2014, when Ruzgas and Palmer took a victory in #1 Doubles. Palmer set a personal goal to record at least one win against every conference team, and with the victory over Grinnell, Palmer completed his goal and established himself as a force in the conference for his senior season.
Men’s tennis will have to do without the dynamic duo of Ruzgas and Palmer next season following their graduation from Knox. One of the two has been in the #1 or #2 singles position for the past four seasons, and with their graduation there will need to be continued growth from the rest of the team.
The women’s team figures to have less of an outward loss, only graduating one senior. The team also features a resurgence in youth headlined by freshman Taytem Chapman, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on how the team develops without Skrade. Chapman’s growth is a testament to Skrade’s work. In her own words, Chapman developed from a bottom of the team position in high school to demonstrating the ability to compete at the collegiate level, where she was the #1 seed from the Prairie Fire’s first contest of the season.
“The bottom line is that they have each other and that will continue to carry this program forward,” Skrade said. “There is a team culture among each of the teams as well as across the two that will be the foundation through this transition. Even the recruited incoming players have a sense of that. In addition, I will be supportive to the new coach in whatever capacity they desire. “
Khan is not worried about the team’s growth either. In addition to a plethora of skilled recruits, he again cited the team’s sense of togetherness as a driving force in their push onward and upward.
“More than results, team unity is what matters,” Khan said. “Tennis is an individual sport on the court, but it is very much a team effort. Success will follow teams who have one another’s backs.”
Skrade left her mark off the tennis courts as well — alongside Associate Professor of Music Sarah Day-O’Connell, Skrade worked to secure a non-profit grant from Reebok for the “Build Our Kids’ Success” program at Gale Elementary School. Both the men’s and women’s tennis teams worked with the children tri-weekly before school to promote health and fitness.
“Teaming up with Sarah to start the Build Our Kids Success program at Gale has benefited the team in ways seen and unseen,” Skrade said. “It’s great for college students’ psychological well-being and leadership development to both give of themselves as well as to interact with another generation. It’s incredibly meaningful for to me to know what these college students have done for the Gale kids’ self-confidence, fitness and learning potential.”
Skrade’s coaching career, however, is far from over. Skrade will be teaming up with Adam Strand, a former Luther College classmate of Skrade’s, to coach the same tennis team she was on as an undergraduate. Skrade also intends to pursue being a birthing coach. Meanwhile, Knox is undergoing a national search to fill Skrade’s position.
“Everyone has a role to play on this team,” Khan said. “If we can all fill those roles, the sky is the limit.”