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John’s Journal: After 64 State Tournaments, Hal Miller Leaves A Legacy

Tennis Tourney Manager Always Put The Student-Athletes First

Posted: Wednesday, June 7, 2023 - 2:39 PM


For 33 years, Hal Miller has been a familiar, friendly face at MSHSL state tennis tournaments.





"It’s been not even a labor of love, it’s been an experience of love and appreciation."
-- Hal Miller

Hal Miller is filled with gratitude. As he manages an MSHSL state tennis tournament this week for the 64th and final time before stepping away, he is grateful for all the friends he has made and all the fun he has had. And everyone who knows Hal Miller is beyond grateful to call him a friend.

That group numbers in the hundreds, if not thousands, because Hal, 74, has had a positive impact on more lives than can be counted. Every fall, he has guided either the Class A or Class 2A girls state tennis tournament, and in the spring he has done the same for the boys. He has been doing so for 33 years, missing only two tournaments that were canceled due to Covid-19.

“There certainly will be sadness at the finality of it,” Miller said before the boys state tournament began its Tuesday-through-Friday run. He is spending his final week on the job managing the Class A site at the InnerCity Tennis center in south Minneapolis.

“Certainly I’ll miss the people, I’ll miss the challenge, I’ll miss being involved,” he said. “The excitement that comes from watching kids compete and play and their sportsmanship. I’ve made some great, great friends, not just with coaches, but with parents who come back and visit and say hello. It’s been not even a labor of love, it’s been an experience of love and appreciation. I think the world of the high school league and its people and its mission.”

It's a little odd that a person who is so strongly linked with high school tennis in Minnesota never played competitive tennis, either in high school or college. Miller played football, basketball and baseball during high school in Alexandria, played football for one year at St. Cloud State and was a batting-practice catcher and manager for the St. Cloud State baseball team. Being part of a team has been important to him throughout his life.

After college he was hired to teach in Willmar in the late 1970s. The high school had an opening for a girls tennis coach and Miller was asked if he was interested. He took the job despite having little knowledge of the sport.

“I knew two things; how to keep score and how to buy tennis balls,” he said with his familiar laugh. “I went to camps and clinics and I had so many good mentors. That first team won 14 matches and went to the section finals. It wasn’t because of me, they were well-taught before me. They almost took me to the state tournament. I got hooked on it because of those kids.”

That’s been the tent pole of Miller’s educational and coaching career ever since: the kids. During team play at state tournaments, he is well-known for conducting pre-match meetings with both teams that are filled with a mixture of congratulations, sportsmanship, camaraderie, and gratefulness. He puts a smile on everyone’s face.

In recent days, sorting through boxes at his home in the small town of Raymond, he discovered a letter from 1990. Dorothy McIntyre, then a member of the MSHSL staff and a pioneer in Minnesota girls sports, had written to Miller with an offer to become a state tennis manager.

“That was a jog back in history,” he said.

He credits McIntyre not only for her outstanding work on behalf of Minnesota high school kids, but for being a mentor to him. She is one of many people Hal has been thinking about during his final week as a tournament manager.

Litchfield tennis coach Greg Matthews was one of the first established coaches who helped Miller understand the keys to building a successful program.  

“I watched the program Bernie Rolle created at St. Cloud Apollo, and Bill Ritchie and Jerry Sales from Tech,” Hal said. “I remember talking to Ted Greer (Edina) about ways to get our team to the next level and play in the state tennis tournament. He gave me terrific advice, which elevated us to make nine team tournaments. John Eberhardt, Dave Edwards, Les Zellman, Jeff Demary, Dave Stearns, Rich Strokirch, Steve Paulson, Perry Forester, Bruce Thompson, Lisa Salo, Mike Cartwright, Paul Bates, Ted Warner, Tara Reichmann.

“Loren Holter from our program, Cheryl King and Dallas Hagen and Crookston coach Mike Geoffrey were just some of the many coaches and friendships I cherished and learned from. They were friends with a great passion for the game and I learned so much from each one of them. These coaches never punched a time clock, they simply worked until the job was done and they were more than willing to help a player from another program to reach their full potential.”

Hal coached the Willmar girls tennis team for 28 years and the boys for 22 (four as an assistant, 18 as head coach).

He likes to tell stories about growing up in Alexandria, including tales of his time with friends at playgrounds, ball fields or gyms. 

“We learned to play each game the right way, respect our opponents and enjoy the game itself from coaches and teachers. I took those lessons to heart when I took over the girls tennis program. I went to clinics, talked to successful coaches and asked a lot of questions. I also watched other programs outside of tennis and observed how they built and developed their programs.” 

Once he became involved in state tournaments, Miller suggested changes to make the experience even better for the teams and players. He pushed to allow alternates to play exhibition matches at state on courts that would otherwise be empty, which has become the norm. He also urged the MSHSL to have matches in each class at a single site; the format used to call for teams that lost in the state quarterfinals to move to an alternate site for consolation matches.

When told that using one site would mean longer days for himself and other tournament staff, Hal didn’t hesitate.

“I said, ‘I don’t care. It’s not about me.’ It’s about the kids, coaches and parents. It’s their magic carpet ride.”

When he was hired at Willmar, the young man was informed that he was in a special spot.

“They told me the day I signed my contract, ‘This is a place you can spend your entire career. It’s a place where you can stay and be happy.’ ”

That played out. Even in retirement from teaching, Miller remains a fixture in the community. He works as a public-address announcer at Willmar High School events, volunteers with school and civic groups, and stays active and involved. Everyone knows Hal.

His honors are many, and he is grateful for all of them. He was named the Class 2A girls tennis coach of the year in 2003, was inducted into the Willmar Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame in 2011, received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Federation of State High School Associations in 2015 and was inducted into the MSHSL Hall of Fame that same year.

“I benefitted from some really good kids,” he said, as always turning the focus away from himself. “I started some kids really young in summer programs. The kids that were on the team took part and helped build the program, because they loved it.”

Longtime tennis coaches Steve Haug of Alexandria and Rick Engelstad of Pine City have worked alongside Miller in managing state tournaments for years, relationships that Hal called “exceptional and what a joy.” Tournament managers are involved in event preparation, site setup and they spend each tournament day greeting players, coaches, families and fans, all while doing everything possible to ensure a high-level, fair competitive experience.

Miller said, “For all these years, the first question I’ve asked is how do we make this better? That’s been the case since the very first day with Dorothy. The goal is to have a first-class tournament and have fun doing it. We want to create memories that will last a lifetime, for players, coaches, parents and people who come. That hasn’t changed.”

--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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