KEARNEY — Jake Saulsbury built the University of Nebraska at Kearney women’s tennis program into a conference and regional power in his 10 years at the helm.
He is the winningest coach in program history, amassing 327 victories — 175 women and 152 men — during his tenure.
When he surprisingly resigned from his position July 1 to accept a role with the city of Lexington as a recreation coordinator, it left the Lopers with a head coaching void less than two months until the start of fall practice.
UNK Athletic Director Marc Bauer asked Saulsbury for recommendations on candidates to serve as the head coach next season. Saulsbury told Bauer that assistant coach Scott Shafer is the only person he should consider for the coaching spot, Shafer said.
Bauer listened to Saulsbury’s advice and hired Shafer as interim head coach for next season in hopes of continuing the winning tradition Saulsbury established throughout his tenure.
Shafer said, “He told me he was looking for someone who knew the program and community, and I think all of those things made it easy for him to go with me.”
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Shafer spent the last six years as the assistant coach under Saulsbury, joining the program in 2013. He relocated to Kearney from Madison, Wis., with his wife and daughter in June 2013. Shafer’s wife has family in Norfolk and wanted to move closer to them after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with her doctorate in chemistry. She explored numerous options and accepted an associate professor position at UNK.
Shafer grew up in Tucson, Ariz., and has a unique background with tennis.
Each summer, Shafer would live with his father in southern California. His father worked for Wilson Sporting Goods as a western regional sales manager in tennis and the two of them would attend junior tournaments throughout the summer. Shafer always received free tennis shoes and rackets, and played varsity tennis for three years in high school.
When Shafer attended Edgewood College in Madison for his master’s degree in counseling after receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in public relations from Arizona State University, he worked as a tennis instructor at Cherokee Country Club.
He was working 25 hours as a tennis instructor, and when he relocated to Kearney, he wanted to stay involved with the sport. He reached out to Saulsbury and Saulsbury’s brother Troy, who is the boys and girls tennis coach at Kearney High School.
It was the start of a relationship with the Saulsbury brothers and led to Shafer joining the coaching staff at UNK.
Shafer is familiar with UNK and knows what is needed to make the program thrive. He hopes he can earn the permanent head coaching position after he serves in the interim role for one season.
“It’s nice that I’ve been doing this for six years with the same team and in the same place,” Shafer said. “I’m pretty comfortable, and I think I understand the expectations of the head coach having been with Jake all this time.
“I don’t think that my mindset should be any more than doing my best. You don’t need drastic changes at this moment so the mindset is to do what we are doing and add some things.”
The Lopers had an underwhelming season last year.
A 15-13 record, including a 3-6 mark in MIAA play, caused the Loper women’s tennis team to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Returning to the NCAA Tournament next season might be a challenge for the Lopers, who will have a young team. They lost five players from last year’s roster and have six incoming players, including five freshmen, on next season’s 10-player squad.
One intriguing addition for next year’s team is Anastasia Kuzevanova. She transferred to the Lopers from Division I Nicholls State University in Louisiana this summer and will have two years of eligibility remaining. She played sparingly as a sophomore last season, losing the four matches she played in singles and doubles.
“It’s really hard to gauge,” said Shafer on the potential of next year’s team. “With two new international players and four domestic, it’s exciting. When someone graduates, you want to replace their level and hopefully improve on it.”