BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Michael Smookler didn’t think twice.
When offered the chance to return home and coach his alma mater Governor Livingston, he jumped at the opportunity.
After years of serving as a personal tennis coach and free-floating at various tennis clinics nationally, Smookler will serve as a head coach at the high school level for the very first time.
Smookler replaces Bill Meakem as the boys and girls tennis coach. Meakem was dismissed as tennis coach this past spring for unknown reasons.
For someone with Smookler’s credentials, the high school head coaching gig is long overdue. Whether Smookler was bothered by waiting this long for his first high school head coaching job is unknown, but there’s no question that if Smookler had to choose one place to coach, it would be in his hometown.
“It’s a great feeling being able to coach in your hometown,” Smookler said. “The fact that I’m a GL graduate makes this opportunity even more exciting. The opportunity to coach a team that I played four years for was one I couldn’t turn down. I’m excited to not only teach the kids about tennis but about life as well.”
After graduating from Governor Livingston in 1989, Smookler went on to Lyndon State College, where he enjoyed another successful four years of tennis before eventually becoming the program’s head coach for seven seasons. During his playing career at Lyndon, Smookler served as team captain and helped his team to three conference titles.
Smookler’s 27 years as a tennis coach also includes stops along the east coast from New Jersey to Vermont. Smookler has spent the past two years as a High School Program Manager and coach at Center Court in Chatham. In the two years prior to Center Court, Smookler served as Director of Tennis for the Englewood Field Club.
Smookler also worked at USTA National Training Center in Flushing, NY where he worked with top nationally ranked juniors, ages 12-18, alongside former top ten players, Tim Mayotte and Patrick McEnroe.
Through the years serving in various capacities, Smookler has coached and worked with some major figures in the tennis field.
One of Smookler’s well-known protégés was Alex Petrone, who Smookler coached at the highly-regarded Kalamazoo Tournament. Petrone went on to have a successful four-year career at the University of Michigan from 2011-2015.
The long list of tennis legends Smookler has worked with includes Rod Lavor, Guillermo Vilas, Stan Smith, and Mats Willander (all former #1 players in the world).
Based on where he’s been and who he’s worked with, Smookler is more than qualified to coach at the high school ranks.
Smookler knows coaching high school will be very different from previous experiences and he’s smart in taking a simple approach to the task.
“Bill Meakem did a great job coaching this program and he cared deeply about the kids,” said Smookler, who played tennis at GL from 1985-1989. “My goal is to help the program continue to grow and move this team in a positive direction.”
Smookler has gotten a head start on communicating with his players. Smookler formally introduced himself to some of his players at a recent high school training camp.
One of those players Smookler had the chance to interact with is rising junior Jen Collins, one of the program’s best players.
“Jen looked good when I saw her play a few weeks back and I’m looking forward to working with her,” Smookler said. “I also got a chance to see and meet a few of the other girls and assess some of their strengths and weaknesses.”
Last season, the girls team went 12-8 and the boys team went 8-12. While there’s certainly room for improvement, Smookler won’t deviate too far from familiarity. He’ll make the necessary tweaks to players’ techniques but nothing too major.
As for how the return to Governor Livingston has been received by the Berkeley Heights community, Smookler couldn’t feel more at home.
“I’ve been received with open arms,” Smookler said. “I still know a lot of people in the area which has helped ease the transition.”
Smookler said he feels no pressure with his new position and is just excited and “chomping at the bit” to get going.
“The emphasis will not be on winning,” Smookler said. “Don’t’ get me wrong because winning is great. But the emphasis will be moreso on the student-athletes and making sure they’re improving not only on the court but in the classroom as well.”