There are few figures more strongly associated with tennis in Bartow County than Mark Hibbard. Now, his son, Levi, is looking to add another chapter to the family’s longstanding level of excellence in the sport.
Although pen hasn't been able to be put to paper yet due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Levi Hibbard will be joining the staff at Woodland High this coming school year, teaching math and coaching boys tennis. After spending the past 11 years in south Georgia, the 28-year-old Excel Christian graduate will be coming home.
“We were already planning to move back to Cartersville,” Hibbard said, referring to his wife, Lanie, and daughter, Ella Ruth. “In January, I started putting out my application to different high schools. Woodland got back to me. I knew [Woodland coach] Beth [Heath] a good bit. It was a great opportunity for me. My dad has been in the area for years, coaching tennis. The name Hibbard is almost synonymous with tennis up in Cartersville.
“I knew the opportunity would be there to really sink my roots down and start establishing something. I know Woodland tennis has been there, but it’s kind of struggled a bit in the past. I would like to get in and establish a strong base for it. Maybe get a good program that can withstand those short waves of talent, and instead, be more constant.”
Woodland is coming off arguably its best four-year run in program history. The Wildcats finished at or above .500 in Region 7-AAAAA each completed season, qualified for state twice and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time ever.
Several of those numbers would have been even more impressive had this season not been cut short by the coronavirus.
The 2020 roster was senior-laden, with five of nine players set to graduate. Two of those athletes are going to continue their careers in college, as Bryce VanOrder signed to Piedmont and Connor Gunnell inked with Shorter.
With seven individuals needed to field a full lineup, Hibbard likely will have to do some recruiting to get a few more kids to join the team. His pitch to those prospective tennis players is two-fold.
“A: There’s opportunity,” Hibbard said. “If I only have X amount of players on the team, you’re going to get a chance in this sport. And B: It’s a lifetime sport. You learn this sport, and you probably won’t go on to play in college. That’s OK, because you can go on and play for the rest of your life.”
Inheriting a rebuilding project doesn’t faze Hibbard. Upon graduating from Valdosta State, he took Region 1-AA Berrien to the second round of the state tournament in each of his four seasons as boys coach.
“The best part is the building,” Hibbard said. “It’s better than the final product.”
Following his four years at Berrien, Hibbard took charge of the boys and girls programs at Lowndes. His first season saw both teams finish runner-up in Region 1-AAAAAAA and advance to the second round of state. Last year, his boys team won the region title, while the girls again placed second.
“Down here, our goal was to always get to the spot where we can compete for a region championship every year,” Hibbard said. “That’s going to be my goal at Woodland.”
Hibbard acknowledged it won’t be easy to just show up and push the Wildcats into the region title race.
In the six-team Region 7-AAAAA Woodland will find itself in next season, Hibbard and Co. will face five programs which have reached the postseason since 2017. Blessed Trinity, Calhoun and Cartersville have all been playoff mainstays in recent seasons, albeit in lower classifications. Cass and Hiram have fielded competitive sides, as well, qualifying for state in 2017 and 2019, respectively.
Frankly, in parts of south Georgia, all that's needed sometimes to build a competitive tennis team is a coach that takes their job seriously. The same cannot be said for the Wildcats’ new region.
“It’s a different kind of challenge when you have that kind of access,” Hibbard said of moving back north. “… I look forward to the opportunity with an area that’s definitely flourishing with tennis. There’s a lot more courts in the area, and it’s a lot more competitive.”
The addition of Hibbard will allow Heath to return to coaching just the girls team after spending the past two seasons leading both halves of the tennis program. Both coaches are looking forward to working together.
“He’ll do a fantastic job,” Heath said recently of Hibbard. “I’m excited to work with him.”
Woodland athletic director John Howard is likewise excited about the possibilities that will come from Hibbard joining the Wildcats.
"Coach Hibbard is going to be a great addition to our school," he said. "He is going to do a great job teaching in our math department. We are excited for our boys tennis program. Coach Hibbard not only brings a wealth of experience to the position but will be able to help build the program with his ability to recruit the halls.
"Coach Heath has done a great job coaching both programs, but having two coaches will give them both the opportunity to spend more time developing players' individual needs."
When you add in the fact that Hibbard has plenty of local ties stemming from his days playing for the Eagles and his father's many contacts in the local tennis scene, Howard has plenty of reason to be thrilled about the future of the boys tennis team.
"It’s always good to have someone local taking over athletic programs," he said. "They have the pulse of the community, and that’s one less thing as an athletic director that I have to focus on."