116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — When Mitch Gross took over the Iowa City West boys’ tennis program in 2002 it was, in his words, "basically a joke."
"The program wasn't even allowed to have lockers in the varsity locker room," Gross said. "When I was hired by (then athletics director) Marv Reiland, I told him I would win a state title here. I'll always remember the surprised look on his face after I made that comment."
It took Gross just four years to win that title. Now, in his 20th year at West, Gross's program is no longer a joke. It has become the gold standard of boys’ high school tennis in Iowa.
West has been in every Class 2A state team championship match since 2011, winning six times after winning back-to-back titles in 2005-06. He’s on track to earn his 300th career dual coaching victory this week.
Saturday’s duals were postponed, so his next chance to reach the milestone is Thursday at Cedar Rapids Prairie.
In his 22-year coaching career (including his first two years at Ballard), Gross is 299-36 (289-30 at West). His coaching philosophy was shaped from his four years of playing tennis at Ripon College under Chuck Larson, a legendary small-college coach. Even though tennis is considered an individual sport by many, the team aspect always has been paramount for Gross.
"The best player may not be the right player, meaning skill and talent is important, but it's not everything," he said. "I am looking for someone who is clutch, someone who can handle pressure, who is coachable and who deeply cares about the team.
"We have always made winning the team championship the ultimate goal and singles and doubles championships, while great, never take precedence over the team crown. When our guys are not playing, they gather at their teammates' matches, cheering them on. That is a rarity in high school tennis. Many coaches and opposing parents will compliment our team dynamic, namely how supportive everyone is of each other."
One of West's top rivals over the past several years has been Linn-Mar. The Lions and West have met in the state finals four times since 2014 with each team winning twice.
"Mitch and I have had some memorable duals over the years," said Linn-Mar Coach Chris Wundram. "It's been a competitive and entertaining rivalry for sure, and I have always enjoyed coaching against Coach Gross and his teams.
"We know when we play Iowa City West we are going to face an elite level team no matter the year."
Of course to have elite teams, coaches need elite players and Gross has had his share. At West, he has coached five singles state winners (three by Jiung Jung from 2015-17) and four state-winning doubles teams. Despite that success, Gross takes nothing for granted.
“I am always pushing, always challenging the players to be better, to not be satisfied where they are," Gross said. "Championships are not given, they must be taken, no matter how many you have (already) won."
"We talk about our program as being the West Tennis Family, and I truly feel that. I have such a deep connection to so many of my former players. I have former players who are now teachers and tennis coaches themselves, which is pretty cool, former players themselves are now fathers which is crazy."
This year, Gross took on another challenge when he was named West's interim principal in August. He took that job with the same mindset he had when he was hired by Reiland.
"Being the principal in the midst of a pandemic has been a challenge for sure," Gross said, "but the job itself is very similar to that of a head coach. It's setting high expectations, and then working harder than anyone to exceed them."