By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- As Eric Barr trades volleys with Randolph-Macon Academy student Cole Pawlak on the tennis courts behind Turner Hall on the school's campus, it's obvious that this is where Barr was meant to be.
Barr -- R-MA's tennis coach for the last 25 years -- casually strolls back and forth along the baseline, returning the shots sent by the Yellow Jackets' No. 1 boys singles player with relative ease back across the net. There is no instruction going on, it's just a friendly warm-up game before the Yellow Jackets begin practice.
Off the court, Barr talks and jokes with some of his players, but the conversations between Barr and his pupils don't resemble anything close the typical coach-player exchange. That's because when players speak to Barr, they aren't just talking to a coach -- they're talking to a friend and a mentor.
"I know when I started I didn't expect that -- I didn't expect that rapport with the kids that I would grow to have, that extra connection," Barr said before the Yellow Jackets' final tennis practice of the season last Wednesday.
Barr's unique ability to connect with players on a level deeper than tennis has been the foundation of his 25-year coaching career. Sure, Barr has experienced his share of success, as the 53-year-old has won numerous conference titles and coach of the year awards. But for the longtime coach, it's the connection with the kids, the small things that provide some of Barr's fondest memories.
"It's more than just what happens on the court. It's camaraderie, it's the long trips, it's eating at McDonald's afterwards, it's talking about the results," Barr said.
Many times, the friendships that Barr forms with his players carry on long after they graduate from school. Barr said he always looks forward to catching up with former players at Homecoming, and Barr has even created a page on Facebook that past players can join to keep in touch.
Jumanah Khader, who was the No. 1 girls singles player for Barr from 1993-95, said it's amazing to see the number of people who still check in with the longtime coach from time to time through things such as social media.
Khader has some fond memories of her own -- which include Barr's singing performances during team bus rides -- and it was her initial experience as a player for Barr that made her want to join his coaching staff six years ago.
"He's a person that you stay in touch with once you graduate from here, and he's one of those mentors for life, really," Khader said. "When I came to work here, there was no doubt about it. When the opportunity came up I knew that I definitely wanted to be coaching with him."
Barr's experience as the coach of the boys and girls tennis programs has been every bit as rewarding for him as it is to his players, and he said he can't imagine himself not being R-MA's tennis coach and he plans to continue coaching until he simply doesn't want to do it anymore. But there was a time when coaching tennis seemed foreign to Barr.
Barr -- who has taught mathematics at R-MA since 1982 -- was first approached by former athletic director Frank Moxie about serving as the boys tennis coach in 1989. Barr agreed, although the extent of his tennis experience was purely recreational, and he had never held a coaching job before.
"I was clueless and relied a lot on the players," Barr recalled of that first season in 1989, in which the Yellow Jackets went 5-5. "I asked them, 'What did you do last year? What do you think worked? Show some drills.' I've since gone to some coaches clinics, looked at videos, tennis magazines. But ... the best the thing that's helped me is just doing it."
Barr caught on quickly, and in 1992 he led R-MA to a 12-0 season and a Virginia Independent Conference boys tennis championship. Barr said that year was one of his fondest memories on the court, as the Yellow Jackets had to rally to beat Lynchburg Christian in the tournament championship match. R-MA trailed 4-2 in that match after singles play, but the Yellow Jackets swept all three doubles matches to seize the tournament title with a 5-4 win.
"That's over 20 years ago, and I still remember that vividly ... because winning a VIC championship then was a big deal. We didn't do that often," Barr said. "That banner is still up in the gym, and you see that banner and you remember who those kids were."
Barr has since won at least a share of nine regular season/tournament titles in the Delaney Athletic Conference for the boys and girls tennis teams, and his success has also earned him 10 conference coach of the year awards.
The 2012-13 girls and boys tennis seasons certainly weren't the greatest that Barr has experienced as R-MA's head coach -- the girls went 3-10 last fall while the boys went 6-5 this spring -- but that doesn't mean Barr wasn't busy building more memories.
Barr points out that Pawlak -- an eighth-grader with a United States Tennis Association ranking -- will be an "easy memory for this season," and the fact that Barr gets to work with a multicultural team made up of Chinese, Vietnamese, Nigerian and American-born players ensures his job is never boring.
Barr and the Yellow Jackets have plenty to improve upon after this season, but the absence of a DAC championship certainly doesn't mean this year was a failure. After all, Barr's focus has always gone beyond trophies and banners.
It's about building a sense of camaraderie, forming a bond that Barr and his players can carry with them long after the days spent on the tennis courts at R-MA are gone.
"It makes it all worth it. It's like these are people that you're better off knowing, and you're glad to be a part of their life and help them," Barr said. "It's been amazing to watch these kids over the years and keep in touch with them.
"It's just been an amazing journey."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org