The list of top Fairfield County high school tennis teams is filled with places you’d expect: Staples. Greenwich. New Canaan.
It does not include Bridgeport’s Central High.
That’s a problem.
But Central tennis players are athletes. They don’t run from a challenge — they embrace it.
So does their coach.
As area teams begin practice for the coming season. Andrew McConnell is eager to talk about his squad.
Coaching is his 3rd career. Teaching 9th grade social studies is his 2nd.
For 20 years, McConnell worked on Wall Street, for firms like Bear Stearns and Greenwich Capital. He moved to Westport in 1992, and has been here ever since.
In 2007 he decided to follow his dream — and do something his parents and 2 sisters already did: teach.
Earning certification through Sacred Heart University, the former financier requested an urban school. “It sounds trite,” he admits. “But I wanted to make the biggest impact I could.”
McConnell was worried that, as an older white man, he might not relate to city kids. A former Central principal who was one of his professors reassured him: “If you care, they know it.”
He interned at Central, and was hired there in 2010. After plowing through several principals, the school has flourished under Eric Graf. A former teacher and athletic director, he has boosted morale among staff and students.
But Bridgeport’s perpetual financial woes were exacerbated this year by the state’s. Recently, the superintendent of schools slashed $200,000 from the athletic budget. Gone were middle and high school programs in golf, lacrosse, fencing — and tennis.
That saved $2,600 stipends for Central’s boys and girls tennis coaches. Nevertheless, they swung into action to save their teams.
Stop & Shop donated Gatorade and bagels (home teams traditionally provide food for themselves and their opponents).
The Connecticut Alliance for Tennis and Education has pitched in with racquets.
One of the biggest costs is transportation. McDonnell — who is on the board of First Serve Bridgeport — got that after-school program to serve as a conduit for fundraising.
He had a bold idea: Buy a van. That would not only help with transportation fees (school buses are exorbitant to rent); it could also be used by First Serve throughout the year.
Tennis is an excellent vehicle for city youngsters, McConnell says. Despite its country club reputation, it’s relatively inexpensive. There are many courts in Bridgeport — including beautiful new ones at Central High.
It’s a lifelong sport. It teaches leadership and character. Because players call their own shots — there are no referees — it’s an exercise in sportsmanship.
That’s not just a cliche.
“The FCIAC (Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference) has 6 of the 8 best teams in the state. We’re not one of them,” McConnell explains.
“We don’t win a lot. But our kids love to participate. They have terrific attitudes. They try their best, work hard and have fun. Our competitors recognize that. We’ve won the league sportsmanship award several times.”
McConnell says that by interacting with players from other towns, his Central athletes form friendships they otherwise could not.
And sometimes the impact of tennis can be life-changing.
During his first 2 years at Central, Bashan Rosa had little focus. His grades were poor.
But he discovered tennis. To maintain academic eligibility, his grades rose — to honor roll level.
He can’t play for Central this spring. He’s a 5th-year senior, earning enough credits to graduate.
He’s still part of the squad, though. McConnell asked him to serve as an assistant coach.
On a team that — if McConnell’s fundraising efforts come through — serves as an FCIAC championship story. Even if they never win a match.
(To contribute to the Central High School tennis program via GoFundMe, click here.)