Over the summer, the Emerson Athletics Department hired John Nestel to head the tennis program with the belief that he would function as the coach for both the women’s and men’s teams.
But as the poet Robert Burns once said, sometimes even the best-laid plans go astray. Nestel resigned abruptly from his position five games into the women’s season and filed complaints accusing the college of illegally manipulating its player lineup during games. A tennis association and the league Emerson plays in cleared the college of all allegations.
The women’s team went to the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) Championship with no head coach. Now, with less than a month to go before the men’s team’s first match, the Lions have found their new man.
Gavin Barton, a Boston University graduate with a masters in counseling/sports psychology, was named the new coach of the men’s tennis team after the position went unfilled for five months.
Barton said the hiring process all happened within the span of a week in early February.
“I didn’t even know the job was open until I got a call from a friend of a friend,” said Barton, who teaches at Lasell College and coaches at Wightman Tennis Center in Weston. “I have a couple friends who went here and said it was a really nice environment, so I thought it might be a good place to work.”
Barton is currently pursuing his doctorate in counseling pyschology while also operating GB Performance Consulting, his private sports counseling practice.
The new coach was chosen from a small pool of candidates by a committee of Director of Athletics Kristin Parnell, Assistant Athletics Director Erin Brennen, and senior captain Ken Nikravesh.
Parnell said Barton was recommended to her by three outside people and has the right credentials for the job.
“Gavin’s background in sports psychology...and his involvement in what he’s been doing — both tennis and his education — are a great fit for Emerson students who play on the team,” Parnell said. “I think we’ve got a great candidate and he’ll do excellent here.”
The previous coach before Nestel, Mason Astley, left Emerson in the summer for an assistant coaching job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Astley coached both Lions programs for three seasons, and was named the GNAC Coach of the Year in 2009. Nikravesh, who studies at the Berklee School of Music, said he noticed parallels between the two coaches in that they have a background in the psychological aspect of tennis.
“I think they’re both of a similar breed,” the jazz composition major said. “The need for mental coaching — I think that’s really important. All the successful coaches in the past at Emerson have taken that very seriously. He just seemed like the right fit for our current squad.”
Last season, the men also worked with Matan Lushkov, a student intern studying sports psychology at Boston University.
Describing his coaching style when dealing with players, Barton said he works with each player differently depending on what resonates with them.
“I try and figure out what needs to be done,” he said. “I’m OK with being a little bit hands off, if that approach will work best. I don’t mind cracking the whip a little bit too, if that is needed.”
With no coach during the offseason, it fell on Nikravesh to stay in contact with the freshmen and new players.
“Once we chose Gavin, it was just a matter of getting all our paperwork in and sorting out practice times,” said Nikravesh, who will be meeting with Barton on Friday for the first time since he was hired.
The men have made the GNAC Championship the past two years straight, losing to Suffolk both times. Juniors Mitchell Lance and Matt Merksamer were named to the all-conference team.
Though only a part-time coach, Barton said he is fully committed to Emerson and will try to be available to the players as much as possible. Parnell said that because Barton runs his own practice, she is confident he will be able to manage his schedule appropriately.
As for the status of the women’s team, Barton said, though it is still early, he would be greatly interested in returning to Emerson in the fall.
Parnell said there is a chance Barton could be named as the women’s head coach, though nothing has been decided as of yet.
“We’re leaving [it] open,” Parnell said. “I think it’s a possibility, but it’s not a guarantee.”
When it comes to catching up for lost time, Barton said despite coming on so late in the season, he does not feel at too big of a disadvantage.
“With a sport like tennis, it might be a little different from, say, basketball, where it’s a team sport. Tennis is more individual,” he said. “Getting the team together as a group, that’s been the hardest part. That right there is where I’ve been behind the eightball a little bit, but the tennis part will take care of itself once we get going.”