Before the start of every boys tennis season, Mike Gillespie rummages through the many tennis balls at his disposal in search of the one years removed from its highest bounce.
Gillespie, the Whiteland girls and boys coach since the 2002-03 school year, writes the word “Honor” on the ball and, voila, it goes from afterthought to cherished possession.
He does the same thing each spring before the start of the girls season.
Following a Warriors match, win or lose, Gillespie awards the ball to one of his players — or a doubles team — for any number of reasons. A positive attitude, improvement since the last match, good sportsmanship, being a positive, dependable teammate are merely some of the things the coach has cited in the past.
At Whiteland, the game ball is a big deal.
This gesture as much as anything encapsulates the coaching philosophy of Gillespie, 47, whose 481 career victories are matched only by his desire for his players to not only learn the sport, but have fun doing it.
“There are three things we focus on more than anything else at Whiteland,” said Gillespie, a 1993 graduate of Mooresville High School. “Competing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a drill, it’s in a game or it’s in the classroom. I expect people to compete as much as they possibly can.
“The second is to be a good person. On the court, off the court, in the classroom and at home. The third thing, and this is where a lot of coaches lose sight of in high school athletics, and that’s have fun.”
Gillespie knows if a young player isn’t having a good time, the odds of that person sticking with tennis aren’t favorable. The coach is therefore determined to make instruction enjoyable from the high school level all the way down to the youngest players in the Whiteland feeder system.
Growing up in Mooresville, Gillespie played tennis in the fall, basketball each winter and baseball in the spring.
Tennis, he admits, was his third-best sport.
Gillespie eventually attended Franklin College, and played for the Grizzlies baseball squad.
“I really didn’t have a good time with that. It was too much work,” Gillespie said. “I talked to (then-men’s tennis coach) Dave Broshears, and said, hey, I played a little bit in high school. I’m not very good. Can I try out?”
Broshears agreed, and Gillespie played a lot at No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles for the Grizzlies. After graduating from Franklin College in 1997, Gillespie figured he would coach either basketball and/or baseball once he began his teaching career.
It was around this time Broshears handed Gillespie a stack of tennis magazines — just in case his future employer needed someone to coach that sport.
“I’m, like, I don’t know anything about tennis. I can’t coach tennis,” Gillespie said. “And, of course, now, however many years later, it’s kind of weird how it fell into place.”
Gillespie spent five years assisting former Whiteland tennis coach John Venter. He was elevated to head coach when Venter took the job as tennis coach at the University of Indianapolis.
Over the past two decades, Gillespie has a total of 481 victories — 274 with the boys, and 207 more in the spring with the girls. The Warriors boys program has captured six Mid-State Conference championships in that time with the girls winning once.
Whiteland won its lone boys sectional title in 2015.
In 2020, Gillespie was honored as the IHSTECA state coach of the year. He’s twice won boys coach honors in District 5 and is a four-time recipient of the Mid-State Conference boys coaching award.
The coach and his wife, Jenny, reside in Whiteland with their three sons, Quinten, 19; Spencer, 15, and Grady, 11.
Debby Burton, who became the Center Grove High School girls tennis coach in 1999 when Gillespie was a Warriors assistant, respects the stamp he’s put on the Warriors boys and girls programs.
“I like playing his teams because I know his kids are going to come out, they’re going to play hard, they’re going to be polite and they’re going to compete to the best of their ability,” Burton said. “It doesn’t matter who the player is, Mike treats them all the same.
“If you’re out here playing, and you’re willing to make that effort, he is going to do whatever he can to make you a better player.”
If at some point you’re awarded the ball of honor, all the better.