After two decades of success on the court, longtime Garces tennis coach Barb Johnston Hill was hoping to hang up her clipboard on her own terms.
The 62-year-old Rams coach planned to coach one more season before retiring in May.
But the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and a broken left wrist suffered in a fall in her new home forced Johnston Hill to speed up her timetable.
With the spring tennis season still up in the air, Johnston Hill announced her retirement on Monday.
“It’s been an honor to be at Garces,” Johnston Hill said. “I’ve met some wonderful, wonderful people. And coached some awesome players and student-athletes. It’s just been a privilege and I hate to stop.”
With original plans to move to Las Vegas with her husband, David, and their two dogs at the end of the school year, the postponement of the fall girls tennis season to the spring enabled Johnston Hill to move earlier. The family moved at the end of August, with the longtime coach planning to commute to Bakersfield to coach the team when, and if, the tennis season started in the spring.
But a day before her birthday, Johnston Hill broke two bones in her left wrist and suffered tissue damage when she tripped over one of her dogs and fell awkwardly. The injury required her to be in a cast the past several weeks. She is due to see her doctor on Wednesday to have the cast removed, but is expecting to have a pin inserted and to be in a cast for another six weeks.
“I thought I would work this year because I wanted to coach and wanted to do one more year and see what was going to happen,” said Johnston Hill, who didn’t feel it would be safe for her to drive with one hand from Las Vegas to Bakersfield. “But you know, when you live 300 miles away … Things just didn’t work out as planned. So I just had to make the decision that was right for my family and I.”
In 20 years as the Garces girls tennis coach, Johnston Hill guided her teams to five Central Section championships and 11 league titles. As the boys coach from 2000-2015, she led the Rams to section crowns in 2004, 2007-08 and won seven league championships.
“The key to Barb’s coaching, and I hope other coaches take note of this, is that she didn’t do the work of our private coaches,” said Alexsia Drulias, who was part of three Central Section doubles championship teams at Garces. “She kept our swings and our grips the same, but she taught us how to move and predict, and anticipate. And she taught us trends and strategies. Even though technicality is a big part of tennis, she understood high school tennis better than anyone. And she always knew what was needed at the end of the day. And one thing she always told my sister and I during our big matches is, ‘play to win, don’t play not to lose.’ Which I think just encapsulates everything that she taught all of our players.”
The 2020 graduate won three Central Section doubles championships, teaming with her older sister Anastasia to win the 2016 Central Section doubles title. She is now a freshman at UCLA with aspirations of playing for the school’s club tennis team and trying out for the Bruins’ dance squad.
“Describing Barb is definitely hard to put words to,” Drulias said. “She’s just a one-of-a-kind type of lady, and my dad (Tom) always says that Barb is one of the finest people he knows. And I think that phrase, ‘one of the finest people …’ you don’t really need adjectives to explain her. She’s just all-around consistent with her coaching, consistent with how she treats people, she’s so loving and I’m so happy to call her one of our close family friends now so I know I’ll always have contact with her.”
While Johnston Hill is a bit on the mend, she already has plans to spend her free time, once she’s healthy again. She and her husband are planning to fish on Lake Meade and Johnston Hill has joined the Lake Las Vegas Rowing team, something she says she had only done in the gym, but now hopes to continue on the water.
But she says the transition away from the daily grind of high school tennis coach will not be easy.
"It just leaves a little bit of a hole in your heart,” said Johnston Hill, while holding back tears. “It’s been so much fun and such a big part of my life. You don’t do something for 20-plus years if it’s not fun and you’re not having a good time.
"Coaching with (Garces assistant) Nate Holmes (the past 14 years) has been just so much fun and we’ve done some good things at Garces. And we have to look back on those and say, ‘hey, good job,’ and now somebody else has to take over. We have a really good nucleus of players that are there, and once the pandemic is over I know they’re going to do great things. It’s going to be fun to follow them.”