COLUMBIA — E = mc2.
Inside the shed at the Rock Bridge tennis courts hangs a poster that reads: “Excellence equals motivation times confidence squared.”
Semifinal 1: Lafayette (19-5) vs. Parkway Central (16-2), 9 a.m.
Semifinal 2: Rock Bridge (22-2) vs. Rockhurst (10-1), 9 a.m.
Championship match: winner semifinal 1 vs. winner semifinal 2, 1 p.m.
It is this balance between motivating players and giving them confidence that has led to one of the most successful high school coaching records in the state.
Rock Bridge tennis coach Ben Loeb said he knows a good relationship with his players has helped both the boys and girls tennis teams grow into powerhouse programs.
“It’s always about us, not me or anybody else,” Loeb said. He says his favorite part about coaching is “investing in a common goal” and seeing his players buy into a philosophy in practice and transfer that into success in matches.
Loeb, who also teaches business and finance classes at Rock Bridge, has certainly invested a lot since he began coaching at the school in 1994. Loeb has won four titles coaching the girls team and two with the boys while compiling one of the highest winning percentages for a high school tennis team in the state, according to the Missouri State High School Activities Association.
Loeb said he wants his players to know they will have to work for success. They have to “work hard at it, and be passionate about it, and be into it and make sacrifices for it, so that’s what I want to instill in them.”
He credits the success his teams have had to the level of investment his players have put in.
“We’ve had enough kids make the effort to develop their skills to become good tennis players. That’s where it starts,” Loeb said.
By now, he knows just which buttons to press to keep his players motivated.
“It’s a balancing act on not pushing them too hard but pushing enough to where you get the maximum potential out of them,” Loeb said.
At one of the team’s final practices Monday before this weekend's Class 2 state tournament, Loeb played doubles with senior Joe LaRose against senior Daniel Liu and junior Ford Zitsch.
After Loeb was nearly beat on a point and skied a shot at the net, he shouted to concede the point. But Zitsch, Rock Bridge’s No. 1 singles player, didn’t let up and smashed the ball through Loeb’s legs, nearly catching him right below the belt. The two continued in good-spirited trash-talking the rest of the match before Loeb hit a perfectly placed serve past his star player for an ace.
Loeb had the last laugh on the court, but it is that type of relationship — and occasional tough love — that has led to so much success. He says he wants to push his players to be the best but “do it in a way where you’re not an overbearing task master. You try to get them to understand you care about them and are trying to help them get better.”
LaRose credits Loeb for putting the players in competitive situations in practice. He said he thinks playing competitively is much more beneficial than doing drills for hours.
“It’s a lot more fun, but those competitive situations make us a lot more resilient, too,” LaRose said.
LaRose said Loeb is so involved in the tennis community that players often know the coach even before they get to Rock Bridge.
“I can’t imagine Rock Bridge tennis without coach Loeb,” he said.
Loeb said he believes in the mental aspects of the game and has plenty of tactics to keep his players focused on success. Sometimes it’s a fiery word of encouragement between points in a match, sometimes it’s an ace during practice to keep his players working and sometimes it’s a laminated card with a message he gives to each player as the state tournament grows nearer.
This week’s message read: “Yes I can.”
When Rock Bridge takes on Rockhurst in the state semifinal match Thursday morning at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield, Loeb said the team that makes the most “Yes I can” decisions will come out victorious.
“The team with the most confidence, if you have two teams of approximately equal ability skill-wise, will in all likelihood be the team that wins,” Loeb said.
Rock Bridge is trying to become the first public school since 1969 to successfully defend its state title, and the Bruins seem to have the confidence to do it.
“We’re better prepared than we’ve ever been,” LaRose said.