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When the Prairie Harvested Tennis Stars

October 23, 2012 By Dana Yost, Guest Commentary

Editor's Note: Midwest author and former Marshall Independent editor Dana Yost has a new book hitting shelves soon. A Higher Level chronicles Southwest State University’s (SSU) national powerhouse women’s tennis team through the 1980s and early 1990s. The book, however, explores much more than a famed tennis program, highlighting life on the upper Midwest prairie, a new college’s steady rise and the difficulty balancing collegian athletics with academics.

After decades of population increase immediately after Minnesota was granted statehood in 1858, there has since been a long trend the other way.

New residents came in heavy numbers in the nineteenth century, particularly after the Civil War, and lured by the prospect of a free 160 acres of surveyed government land through the 1862 federal Homestead Act—if they could stake out their land and stick it out for five years, building at least a 12-by-14-foot dwelling and growing crops, according to the National Archives.

…Grocery and hardware stores opened, grain elevators rose above the flat land, churches and school buildings were built across the countryside and in almost every town. The small-town schools graduated some of the state’s best-performing students. Within a half-century of the mass settling, the prairie roared with productivity and people. By 1910, 72% of Americans lived in rural areas.

However, starting in the 1930s, the population of southwest Minnesota began a decline that has yet to stop, dragging down with it the family farm, small-town businesses and small-town schools. In the 2010 Census, rural residents accounted for just 16 percent of the U. S. population, the smallest percentage in history. Lyon County, where Marshall is the county seat, has sustained slight population growth, but the five counties that border Lyon have had staggering population loss.

Today, the farmland belongs largely to the rich or the gigantic operators. Incidents of mental illness far outpace the region’s ability to respond to them, and the average age of many small towns’ residents is among the oldest in Minnesota. Other than the farms and a few large corporate employers, much of southwest Minnesota is older, poorer and more empty than it was before World War II. Some small towns, through innovation and imagination—or the blessing of geography that placed them beside a lake or at the crossroads of major highways or within short commute of a regional center’s jobs—have managed to fare well, some even add population. But they are rare.

Amid the decades of change, however—the rise, the fall—a few things have bound those who have stayed in southwest Minnesota: they are not shy of hard work, they value their schools, and they love their sports, but rarely sports like tennis.

It is a region where high school football and basketball games draw crowds in the thousands, as does wrestling in towns where it is a traditional hot-bed. For decades, especially after World War II, town-team or semi-pro baseball was another big draw.

…But SSU [Southwest State University] tennis was not baseball. It was not football. Not basketball. It was seldom showered with the sort of receptions or timeless local honors that would have gone to a football or basketball team had either accomplished what the tennis team did. (A good number of baseball parks, football fields and basketball gyms in the area are named in honor of former coaches or players. At the highway entrance to many small towns in the area, motorists are greeted with large signs heralding the towns’ high school state champions. Since [legendary tennis coach Hugh] Curtler retired, Southwest State has built a new football stadium and basketball arena. It demolished the original outdoor tennis courts and scrapped plans for new indoor courts.)

Still, when the Pintos were at their height, the campus community noticed the tennis team. It was hard not to.

Carolina Gomez was a three-time All-American tennis player at SSU from 1986 to 1989. She was inducted February 25, 2011, into the school’s athletic Hall of Honor. In her induction speech, after thanking Curtler for his role in her career, the often-emotional Gomez went on to give thanks to Maggie Larson, the administrative assistant in Curtler’s philosophy department, “to the faculty, to the administration, to the janitorial staff. Everyone at SSU was so enthusiastic, and so supportive of our team and our success.”

“We were all building history for the university,” Gomez said. “When I played at Southwest State, in a way, I was playing for myself. But I was also playing for something bigger.”

…As years spiral into old memories, what was once hallowed may become obscured. There developed a sense among some of the tennis players and Curtler that their legacy has become too easily overlooked by the southwest Minnesota region, losing out to time and change.

For Curtler and his players, the era from 1979 through 1992 was a golden moment, when the prairie meant not an endless emptiness but unforgettable richness.

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