ALBUQUERQUE — In a town where hoops ranks comfortably at the top of the collective mindset between Sunday mass and a fresh plate of green chile enchiladas, Wendall Barnett has spent a lifetime trying to make the sport he loves a part of the culture at Española Valley High School.
Although the walls of the school’s celebrated gymnasium don’t hold any championship banners for tennis, it’s safe to say the 90-year-old who served as the Sundevils’ head coach since 1986 has done a pretty good job of putting his sport on the town’s radar.
On Friday, Barnett officially retired as Española was beaten 8-1 by Artesia in the opening round of the Class 5A Team Tennis Championships at Albuquerque’s Sierra Vista Courts.
“Let’s see, the part that I’ll miss the most? That’s easy,” he said, taking a moment to collect himself as tears welled in his eyes and a frog choked his speech. “It’s the kids. The kids. Over the years I’ve had two or three I could have done without, but I tried to treat them all the same. They were my players and it was my job to teach them tennis.”
He did just that, learning the game himself while living in Southern California after serving in the Navy during World War II. He had a tour in the Philippines before moving to Los Angeles and working the next 35 years driving a bread truck.
He retired at age 60 when his doctors said his heart condition had reached a critical point.
“I decided I really didn’t want to have a heart attack driving down the damn freeway in a bread truck, taking myself out and hurting other people,” he said. “The union let me retire two years earlier, and the wife and I took a look out this way and fell in love with it.”
The couple bought a house, Barnett settled into a new routine, and at age 60 he went from being a volunteer assistant at Española to a paid assistant, then the head coach in a virtual blink of the eye as then-Sundevils coach Andy Montoya stepped down unexpectedly.
“Andy came in one day and said his last day was that Friday,” Barnett said. “He took 10 steps then looked at me and said there would be no more tennis team at Española if I didn’t take the job. So I took it. Thirty years later, here I am.”
A widower for 10 years, he recalls memories and moments with remarkable clarity. He can recall the exact year he became a devout UCLA fan — “Oh, yeah, 1937,” he said — and the moment he cast his lifelong allegiance to the Los Angeles Dodgers — “Ten years later, in 1947,” he laughs.
He has also spent the last 10 years fighting bladder cancer although he shows no outward signs of the disease. He’s still as spry and sharp as the day he left that bread truck and headed east with his pension.
He’ll be the first to say that he hasn’t had the storybook career that many of his peers have had. Not one of his teams has had much postseason success. He did lead the Española boys to the 5A state tournament each of his final two seasons while others had breakthrough moments where certain players fared better than expected.
Some years, he said, were good. Others not so much.
“Oh, gosh, it hasn’t been easy,” he said as he drifted between courts during Friday’s action, taking time to occasionally talk to his players and gab with parents and fans. “Honestly, it beats the hell out of me what I’m going to do now. I honestly have no idea. I haven’t fished in a long time so I might try that. I could golf, but if there’s one sport that’s frustrating it’s that one. To me, tennis was always easy.”
It’s that mindset that made Barnett a perfect fit in a place that seems like the dark side of the moon for a country club sport well off the beaten path set by the school’s basketball program.
One of his closest friends at the school is recently dismissed boys hoops coach Richard Martinez. When the two commiserate about their respective lots in life, Barnett’s go-to line always draws a laugh.
“Tennis isn’t an easy game,” he said. “If it were, they’d call it basketball. Richard? He has it easy.”
Barnett’s playful spirit and friendly nature make him a popular role model for his players. This year the team decided to wear bright yellow T-shirts that had an emoji-styled likeness of the coach’s face, complete with the handlebar mustache he has since shortened to a more traditional length.
It’s a shirt that even rival coaches have grown to love — and even request.
“I had one coach offer to buy one, so I made up an extra one and gave it over,” Barnett said.
Over the years he has done what many thought was downright impossible. He took over a program headed nowhere, generated enough support to have the school’s dilapidated on-campus courts refinished and garner enough interest to keep the team running for three decades.
Before it’s officially over, he’ll coach in the annual North-South all-star series this summer, but not until he and his daughter leave for an extended vacation in Europe. After that he’ll focus on his other money-making venture: making stained glass windows and shades, something he’s done for 40 years.
“I can’t imagine not coaching,” he said, pausing again to collect himself. “My doctor told me I have the body and spirit of a 65-year-old and I do feel that way, but a few years ago I couldn’t go out and hit the ball around with my players anymore. I knew then that it was time to go. Maybe now that it really is time to go, I’ll find something else to keep me going. But I do love this sport.”