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HOLDREGE — Holdrege tennis began with Ray Ruybalid.
The tennis program at Holdrege High School began in 1992 when Ruybalid began coaching both boys and girls teams. He also helmed the Holdrege Tennis Association and organized local tennis tournaments throughout the year.
“Holdrege tennis, essentially, is Ray Ruybalid. He was there when the program got started, and he made it what it is,” Holdrege High School Principal Bob Drews said.
Ruybalid went on to coach tennis at the school for 25 years before he died Nov. 19 at the age of 55 while doing what he loved — playing tennis.
“He was what I call the ultimate coach. As a coach, he took it beyond the sport itself to life application, which I think epitomizes coaching, especially at that level. He was one of the best,” HHS assistant tennis coach Matt Snell said.
Senior Spencer Anderson knew Ruybalid through youth tennis camps Ruybalid coached as well as through his three older brothers because all of them played for Ruybalid.
“He was a big impact not just on the players, but the players’ families also. He’d go and just talk to the parents for awhile every invite, every dual and just make his rounds because he knew just about everyone,” Anderson said.
Students described Ruybalid as a coach who was always encouraging and knew what was best for his players, even if they didn’t see it quite as clearly.
“Sophomore year I was kind of thrown into like the toughest position — No. 1 singles — but he knew in the end that it would eventually lead to me getting better than I would have ever thought. He always knew that,” senior Jett Petit said.
Senior Kate Keffler had a similar experience during her first year on the varsity tennis team last year.
“I didn’t really like him coming and watching me. It made me nervous. By, I think, the Lincoln Tournament that we did at the end, I was playing my last match for first and second, and I was down quite a bit. I think it was like 2-7. He was like, ‘You know, you can either come back now or you can just give up.’ I worked harder, and it was like 6-7 eventually. His encouragement never failed,” she said.
Hard work and success was important to Ruybalid, but so was making sure the students had fun on and off the court. Last year during the girls’ tennis season, the team would often go to Texas Roadhouse to eat. Team members would prank Ruybalid by telling the waitress it was his birthday so he would have to ride a saddle while everyone sang to him.
“That was just a great memory. We have videos of that,” Keffler said.
Each year, the tennis teams attract a large number of participants with 18-30 on the boys’ team and more than 30 students on the girls’ team.
“A lot of people even if they weren’t good at tennis they wanted to go out just ’cause they knew he liked to have fun and would have a good season with him,” Anderson said.
Ruybalid often picked up a racket himself, playing in Holdrege, as well as in tennis leagues in Kearney and Grand Island. His drop shot even earned a unique nickname.
“His drop shot was unbelievable as far as playing against him. So we started calling it the ‘Dirty Ruybalid,’” Snell said.
Outside of tennis, Ruybalid’s family was the most important part of his life. Ruybalid and his wife of 34 years, Karla, had two children, Nicole Eschliman and Kyle Ruybalid, and three grandchildren, Cali, Turner and Samson Eschliman.
“His three grandkids, they were the highlight of his life,” Kyle said.
Students described the tennis teams as being like a family, something Ruybalid always encouraged.
“He wanted everyone on the team to get along. If there were conflicts, he kind of addressed that because he knew it was more important to be friends than just care about winning and stuff like that,” said Anderson.
The boys’ tennis season wrapped up in October, and the girls will begin at the end of February. Ruybalid will definitely be on their minds the next time they pick up a racket, Drews said.
Holdrege High School has yet to make a decision as to who will take over Ruybalid’s head coaching position.
“There will be times where there is a lot of sadness and they will be missing him, but I’m going to say well over half the time it’s going to be smiles thinking about all he did,” Drews said.
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