It started the first week of practice as a simple bet. It was just a coach trying to motivate his team to perform, and it worked. Bunker Hill tennis coach Doug Watters shortly after practice opened in summer made an offer the girls did not refuse.
The 2009 Bears finished the season 0-14 in conference play after losing six seniors to graduation the year before. And Watters wanted to entice his players to achieve more than that.
“We got our heads handed to us week after week,” Watters said. “I went to the coaches’ clinic this year, and there were new drills we put in this year. That’s the boring part of it. They always joke about me being sort of bald, old and slow. I said, ‘I can’t change the old and slow, but I can change the hair stuff.’”
He promised them he would let the girls dye his hair if the girls won their first conference match of the season. They defeated East Burke 6-3 on Aug. 24 and earned their first conference win in two years. On the bus ride back to Bunker Hill, the tennis players started throwing around ideas on what color the coaches’ hair should be. The two sides settled on the school colors — black and cardinal.
On Sept. 2, it became a reality. He dyed his hair the day of the Bears match against Newton-Conover. There are pictures of Watters with black hair and cardinal sideburns with a cardinal streak down the middle of his head.
“It was kind of funny in a way,” said Lacey Ballard, the Bears No. 3 singles player. “He kind of looked like a skunk in a way — a red and black skunk.”
Said top-player Crystal Thao: “I thought it was hilarious. I really thought it should have been more vivid in colors. Overall, it was pretty humiliating for him.”
Watters said the new look made him look 10 years younger, but it also itched and irritated his scalp. He washed it out after a day, but it took three days to get all of it out. The stains from the dye, however, are still in his bathtub.
The players won the bet, and the coach fulfilled his promise. But it turned into something much more.
The bet galvanized the Lady Bears’ top six players — Thao, May Thao, Lacey Ballard, Alex Lombardo, Nue Xiong and Le Xiong — into a single unit. Their response was not just limited to performance on the court. The players showed more enthusiasm during team sprints in the summer heat as well as more supportive of each other during matches.
“They believed and kept going,” Watters said. “To have a good team, you have to build camaraderie and a sense of purpose. From Day 1, they had that purpose they wanted me to look funny and do something dumb. After that, their sense of purpose was, ‘Winning is kind of fun, and let’s keep doing it.’”
Ballard said it showed the girls he was willing to humiliate himself for the team if the girls were willing to commit to doing their best.
The girls won their first two matches in the Catawba Valley 2-A and ended the season with a 7-7 conference record. Also, Crystal Thao and May Thao are the No. 2 doubles seed in the conference tennis tournament.
The tournament starts at noon Tuesday at Maiden.
There is nothing on the line for the tournament — for now.