The 1989 Pan American University women’s tennis team was as focused and ferocious on the tennis courts as they were in the classrooms.
“We had a 3.8 or 3.9 GPA,” said Barbara Gonzales, a member of that team. “But someone would still ask, ‘OK, ladies, who’s bringing us down?’ That’s how we were — we were all held accountable by one another, in all aspects.”
That team, led by head coach David Cross and three of the program’s all-time winningest women’s tennis players, went on to win the American South Conference championship — the first championship in program history and the only one until 2016. The team and coaches will be inducted into the UTRGV Athletics Hall of Fame during a ceremony at 11 a.m. Saturday at the UTRGV Ballroom.
The team consisted of Kim Butler, Gonzales, Leah (Viloria) Hampton, Mary Jane (Mayer) Hetrick, Gail (MacIsaac) Illingworth, Chris Reetz and Tania Webster. Cross was the head coach and the assistant coach was Zia Kahn. Three of the four winningest players in program history were on that team — Hall of Famer Hampton (109 wins), Hetrick (107) and Gonzales (107).
The year prior, in 1988, was “a rough year,” Gonzales said. “We were trying to get our bearings on who we were, what we stood for and what was our goal.”
In the ‘80s, Cross coached both the men and women teams, handing off a grad assistant to help with one team while he focused on the other — usually the men.
“That previous year (1988), I felt we were very underachieving, so I decided to commit to the women’s program in 1989,” said Cross, a recently retired educator from Sharyland ISD. “I knew having seen the competition that we were competitive enough to win the conference.
“I developed a plan and worked the girls like crazy.”
The squad went 11-6 overall and undefeated in conference play (3-0). It won 60.4% of singles matches and 67.7% of doubles matches, and Barbara (Barrera) Gonzales and Gail (MacIsaac) Illingworth teamed to win a then-program record 17 doubles matches (now tied for third-most for a doubles duo). Gonzales also won 17 singles matches for 34 total wins, tying her own program record (now tied for fifth).
When the women’s team found out they were going to have Cross’ undivided attention, it was the first step toward that conference title.
“That’s what we wanted,” said Gonzales, who is the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) director for Vanguard Academy. “Then we made up our minds and came together as a team and said we were going to win the conference. We kept saying it until we finally believed it.”
Gonzales echoed what Cross said regarding being worked in practice. Not only was their tennis practice, but Cross then had them hit the track for more workouts.
“It was grueling and sometimes we just wanted to hit balls at Coach, and I’m sure he felt the same way about us at times,” Gonzales said. “As an athlete in high school, sure you do all these things but being a team with other women who are as focused and as competitive as you — I can’t even tell you what that was like. We were competitive within ourselves for seeding. We would push each other constantly, but we knew it was making each other better. It was never about the individual; it was always about the team. Coach Cross pushed us because he believed we could do that.”
Gonzales distinctly remembers being recruited — if one would want to call it that — by Cross. A self-proclaimed basketball/volleyball/band geek who only “played tennis in the spring,” Gonzales played her freshman year at South Plains Junior College. One year later, the school canceled its tennis program. (“It was on a Friday the 13th. The coach didn’t even know about it. I heard about it on the radio,” Gonzales said.)
“When Coach called me to see if I would be interested in playing, I heard the words ‘tropical,’ ‘beach,’ ‘Mexico,’ and ‘palm trees.’ I was sold,” Gonzales said. “I came my sophomore year, but wish I came here my freshman year.”
Cross said that a lot of the matches won and balls hit are a bit of a forgotten memory. “However, the relationships we developed and closeness of that group of girls is something we still have and we all are still connected and that’s the valuable part,” he said. “Every one of those girls bought into the vision and there was little, if any, resistance.”
“The year before was miserable. We felt neglected. We were part of a team, but the emphasis was on the boys. We were thrilled when we heard he was going to take over the team. The toughest thing was keeping that focus and that pressure on each other. There were days we wanted to slack off, probably the hardest thing to do is keep pushing for that long, all for that one moment. That was a very special season.
“Coach invested in us. I’m in the Valley because of him; he just knew me on a piece of paper and gave me an opportunity and I owe a lot to him. Now I get to be inducted with my sisters and I can’t wait for them to get here to be with them.”