March 28, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – As homecomings go, this one was really out of the blue … and kelly green.
Michaela Kissell-Eddins, one of the most successful players in Marshall Tennis history, returns to campus on Friday. That, she expected when she took a close-to-home job as Pitt’s assistant coach last year.
What she didn’t expect when the Thundering Herd (8-9) and Panthers (8-6) meet here Friday at 2 p.m. was to be guiding the Big East program in its last season against her former coach, MU veteran John Mercer.
Back on Jan. 7, Kissell-Eddins was named Pitt’s interim head coach, after the sudden retirement of George Dieffenbach, who had guided the Panthers’ program to more than 500 victories in more than three decades.
She had been with the program only since mid-November.
Kissell-Eddins’ husband -- former Huntington High state champ and fellow MU alumnus Jacob Eddins -- is now the Panthers’ interim assistant coach.
“It’s definitely been an interesting time and it’s weird how this has happened, but Jacob and I are really looking forward to coming back to Huntington and Marshall,” Kissell-Eddins said Wednesday night by phone before her and the Panthers headed here. “It will be nice to see his family and all of our friends. Hopefully a lot of them will come out for the match.”
Mercer and his former player have their fingers crossed that weather will permit the match to be played outdoors at the Brian David Fox Tennis Center. It has to be 50 degrees for a 2-4-hour period for that to happen, or they head to Barboursville and indoors at the Huntington Tennis Club.
It’s going to be sunny but a close call on the thermometer, if the weatherman is right.
Wherever this one is played, it will be special.
The connections between Kissell-Eddins, her husband and the Herd are numerous. Jacob Eddins has worked with Mercer in teaching tennis locally, was a Herd volunteer coach in the past, a former pro at Guyan Country Club and worked summers at Ritter Park.
Kissell-Eddins and the Herd’s No. 1 player, Dominika Zaprazna, were a star doubles team when the former played her two final collegiate seasons for the Herd after transferring from Miami (Fla.). Kissell-Eddins was a teammate of current MU players Zaprazna, Kara Kucin, Karlyn Timko and Maria Voscekova.
And if the ascension of Kissell-Eddins to a head coaching job at age 24 wasn’t life-changing enough, there’s also this: The couple, after four years together, were married last year. And only a month before she became the Pitt head coach, their first child was born.
Daughter Kylie arrived Dec. 8, 2012.
“When someone has been coaching as long as George had, you always wonder when they might (retire),” Kissell-Eddins said. “I thought that one day I’d be a head coach somewhere and some point, but there’s no way I expected this.
“I really never imagined something like this. It’s been mine and Jacob’s dream to work together like this since we’ve been together, but it’s really amazing how it happened.”
After graduating at Marshall, Kissell-Eddins landed a job as an assistant at Cornell. A three-time Pennsylvania high school state champ and a native of Latrobe, Pa., she left the Ivy League school when nearby Pitt had an opening.
Now, she’s guiding – at least as an interim – the Panthers as they head toward the ACC next season.
“It’s definitely going to be weird playing against John’s team, and after playing doubles with Dominika, now playing against them,” said Kissell-Eddins, who was 110-41 in two record-breaking years with NCAA Tournament appearances and national rankings in the Herd program. “It’s kind of like playing against a sibling.
“You’re going to love them either way, win or lose, no matter what happens. Knowing them, it might help, but it’s more about who plays well, but they’re all such good players it’s going to be a tough match.”
Pitt will remain in Huntington on Saturday for a noon match against VCU at the Fox Center courts. The Herd and VCU are scheduled to meet Easter Sunday at 11 a.m.
Kissell-Eddins brings the Panthers here with a four-match win streak, including a first for the Panthers’ program – a victory over Rutgers. Pitt-Marshall has been an annual date – the Herd leads the series 13-0 – and Kissell-Eddins said she hopes the series will continue, but said the Panthers will need to make schedule alterations with the move to the ACC.
That’s then. What’s now is what figures to be an emotional return for a former Herd star who was a two-time all-Conference USA pick.
“It might be a little bit of an advantage, knowing the players, but I don’t really think it matters that much,” Kissell-Eddins said. “A hard court is a hard court and we play on the same surface John does. It’s who is more prepared. It’s who plays better.
“We’re really looking forward to being back there and seeing a lot of friends.”