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Where Have All The Players Gone?

May 15, 2017 03:49 PM

Where have all the players gone?

Several New Mexico high schools came up short on tennis teams this spring

by Toby Smith

RATON, N.M.—The history of this small, hilly town seven miles from Colorado is filled with notable stories—of cowboys, railroaders, lawmen and coal miners.  

Tennis players and tennis coaches are also part of Raton’s past. Not this year, however. Only one boy came out for the high school’s team, causing Raton to forfeit its season. The New Mexico Activities Association requires boys and girls tennis teams to have at least six members in order to compete in dual matches.

The Raton High School boys were not the only scholastic team in the state with tennis woes.  

“We’re noticing a pattern,” said Joe Butler, assistant director of the NMAA. “It’s kind of a statewide problem. There’s been a shift in programs that once were healthy, but are now dwindling. More and more schools are not being able to meet six in number.”

Ruidoso, for example, annually has more than the requisite number of tennis-playing boys and girls. The Ruidoso boys tallied six this year and the girls only four. Santa Fe Prep had 13 boys out for tennis. The girls’ squad there added up to five. Rehoboth Christian, usually making the grade, according to Butler, showed six boys and just two girls in 2017. In recent years, Bernalillo High School hasn’t had enough boys to compete.  Bernalillo tennis this spring attracted eight boys and only four girls.  

“Like Bernalillo, these numbers often flip-flop,” Butler said. “However, in general we’re seeing fewer and fewer kids playing tennis.  Which is concerning.”

The key to getting more players, Butler told me, is the coach. “Kids will kind of follow if the coach is full into it.” 

IMG_6100Trophies and more trophies

The number of boys playing tennis at Raton has been dropping steadily over the last five years. But to hit rock-bottom this year was a shock, particularly to people who remember how well players here once fared and how popular tennis used to be in Raton. Three glass cabinets in a hallway at the high school are jammed with tennis trophies.  That’s two more cabinets than any other sport at the school. 

“It hurts to see what has happened here in Raton,” said Carl Unger, who played for the Tigers for three years in the 1970s.  He and his doubles partner, Joey Aldez, won district in ’79 and went on to the state tournament.

Unger, who is 56, and drives a UPS truck, said, “Yes, there’s definitely a lack of players, because Raton is losing people.” Unger said his senior class had almost as many kids that are now in the whole high school.

“More than anything, the school needs a committed coach.”

Larry_ModrichThe godfather

Larry Modrich, shown right, is considered the godfather of tennis in northeastern New Mexico. Modrich arrived at Raton High School in the 1930s. He taught biology, coached four sports and was the athletics director. 

Born and raised in a Colorado coal camp, Modrich was tall, rugged and sometimes gruff. As an Army sergeant in World War II he saw action in the Battle of the Bulge.   

In the beginning, Modrich did not know a lot about tennis. “He figured out how to do well,” Norman Thayer, who won the boys singles title for Raton at the state tournament in 1950, told me. “He would load up a bus with maybe 15 of us kids and go to Trinidad, Colorado, to give us extra competition.  For his boys to excel, he had us take on high school players there, as well as the junior college team in Trinidad.”  

“Larry Modrich was definitely a driving force,” said Bill Ferranti, who won the AA-AAA state singles in 1973, his senior year at Raton. In his junior year, he and Dick Mullings captured the state doubles crown.  

“Mr. Modrich always played on Sunday mornings, about 7 a.m., at the high school.” Ferranti said.   “A group of men were there too.  I got out on the court with the men and that’s how I improved.”

Modrich’s son David played on the high school team.  His other son, Paul, now and then would hit tennis balls with his father. But Paul’s chief interest was science, a subject encouraged by his father. In 2015, Paul Modrich, a 1964 graduate of Raton High School, shared a Nobel Prize in chemistry with two others. 

It is not surprising to learn that Thayer, shown below, and Ferranti, also shown below, coached by Modrich, went on to play Division I college tennis. Thayer competed all four years for the University of New Mexico. Ferranti did likewise for the University of Idaho.  













Raton always had good tennis players,” Ferranti, who now lives in Datil, New Mexico, told me.  “We played year-round in Raton.  It’s sad to hear what has happened up there.”

Local girl makes good

When he returned from the war, Larry Modrich coached from 1945-1975. In 1975, he was named to the New Mexico High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame. 

Laurence G. Modrich died in Raton in 1998.  He was 85.

When Modrich retired, Barbara Bonahoom, shown below, took over as tennis coach. A Raton native, the daughter of the town’s chief of police, Bonahoom coached both the boys and the girls teams from 1976-1996.  She came back to coach one more year, in 2003-2004.  

“When I ran the program,” said Bonahoom, who still lives in Raton, “I always had a summer and a fall program.  They don’t have that now, and it makes a big difference.  I firmly believe they need to have a program in the summer to get kids interested.” 


Never one to hold back her opinions, Bonahoom, said, “The current coach should have taken that lone boy to matches and had him play an exhibition against someone from the opposing team.” 

Bonahoom’s introduction to tennis came in Columbian Elementary School where she would play with Ann Zimmerman, another student. “We sort of taught each other,” she said. Did Modrich give her any coaching tips?  She laughs. “All he ever said was ‘You’re doing a good job.’ ” 

Coaching to her was all about giving players every opportunity to get better. Bonahoom closely studied successful high school coaches. “I watched how Leroy Fulgenzi (coach at Las Vegas-Robertson) would work his kids during a practice. He didn’t give them five minutes to sit down.  His boys were always fantastic.  He started them young and you don’t see that here now.”  

In its peak years, Raton as a community had ten tennis courts.  There are only four courts now, all on the high school grounds. The surface of two of those courts is not in the best of shape. 

“Courts were never in great shape there,” Norman Thayer, 83, said of the now-gone courts at the old high school building, which is now a junior high. “The nets were chain-link fencing. When a ball struck the top of the fence, it could jump 20 feet in the air.” Long an attorney in Albuquerque, Thayer told me that when he played, the high school courts were concrete. 

“There were these cracks, see.” He roars at the recollection. “You learned how to play those cracks.”

The damages of a downturn

Tennis is not the only entity in Raton that has fallen off. The town’s population used to be 10,000.  It hovers now at about 6,000. The last working coal mine here shut down in the 1980s.  La Mesa Park, a handsome thoroughbred race track that opened in 1946, closed in 1992. The Raton Range newspaper that had been around for more than a century, folded three years ago. Railroad jobs have all but disappeared. Rubin’s Department Store, a fixture for ages on 2nd Street, Raton’s main drag, has been dark for some time.  

Businesses in Raton these days depend greatly on Interstate 25 travelers, who stop to gas up or search for a bite to eat or a place to sleep.  

Economic difficulties in Raton have caused many families to move away, said Randy Hestand, the high school’s athletics director. The high school has 256 students, from grades 9 to 12.    There are approximately 60 more in the eighth grade. 

“Spring sports pull in a lot of kids,” Hestand said. “We’ve got baseball, softball, track, golf and tennis.  That thins out the numbers for each sport.”  

But that doesn’t explain why the boys’ tennis team had one boy this year and why 13 student-athletes are listed on the girls’ roster.  Racquel Archuleta, who has coached boys and girls tennis for the last few years, did not respond to several phone messages.   

The situation at Raton could be worse. MaxPreps.com shows that West Las Vegas High School’s tennis program had a total of six players: Three boys and three girls.   

The Bonahoom years


Barbara Bonahoom pushed her teams to do well, yet she never had attrition problems. Her players succeeded because she wouldn’t have it any other way. In 1981, Charlotte Bacon and Brenda Duran took third in the A-AAA girls’ doubles at the state tournament. The next year Bacon and Duran came in second. In 1982, the two girls won the title.   

Instead of simply telling her players once at the beginning of a season how to play a tiebreak, Bonahoom would go through the rules of a tiebreak before every tournament.

Although Bonahoom loved being a coach, it was not always easy. She had to dismiss a girl from the team one year when she learned the student had brought along a bottle of whiskey to a tournament.  Robbie Montoya one year was a member of her tennis team. He also decided to be a shot putter on the track team. Bonahoom was not in favor of him doing both. 

That year the district’s track and tennis competition was held at the same high school. Montoya won his singles match and then ran over to the shot put circle and did fine. “He proved me wrong,” Bonahoom said.    

Kids today are different, Bonahoom realizes. “They show up when they want. I don’t think they do any conditioning. When I was there, I had them running laps in the gym in the winter.”

“My goal always was to try to make us a better team.”

Judge_Kenny_C._MontoyaKenny Montoya, now a Bernalillo County metropolitan court judge in Albuquerque, shown right, played for Bonahoom from 1976 to 1979. He finished fourth in state singles one year. “She was amazing,” he told me. “She made sure we had new tennis balls and good rackets.  She cared about kids.  She was always available to hit with us. She took us to regional tournaments.  I’m sure she used her own money to make some of those trips happen. She was instrumental in having city and county tournaments in the summer, which no longer exist. In the early spring it usually snowed and she would shovel the courts.” (Raton’s elevation is 6,600 feet). 

“Barb would keep tabs on people after they graduated,” Montoya said. Whenever Montoya and his wife Charlotte—who was part of that championship doubles duo—go back to Raton, they always make sure to visit Bonahoom. 

Tennis is for all ages

Two of Raton’s most heralded tennis players continued playing after college. Thayer was ranked in the Southwest in men’s doubles and singles. He competed until he was 61.  “I was never good in team sports,” he told me. “I wasn’t tall enough or big enough. I could hit that damn ball and keep it in play. I was a good player, but never a great player.”

Bill Ferranti, who will soon be 62, also played tennis after he finished his education. When he moved to Catron County to take care of a ranch, he’d often drive to Socorro to play. In 2004 he broke his right ankle in a tractor accident that has kept him sidelined from the game.  

“I had good ground strokes,” he said. “I was not a serve and volley guy.”

In recent years Raton has developed some respectable players, though none have come close to what Thayer or Ferranti achieved. D.J. Bird played for Raton High for five years. He went to state in doubles with Jared Harrison, and they lost in the first round.  Bird, who is 19, continues at it. He hits balls against the wall at the old high school, a wall that players have practiced on for five decades. “It builds consistency,” Bird said.  

“I want to be a pro tennis player,” he told me. 

Bird is being helped by Gian Poteste, who graduated from Raton High School in 2009 and walked on to the tennis team at Colorado Springs-Pueblo, a Division II school.   

Poteste played his freshman year there, but found the going tough. “There were a lot of really good foreign players on the team.”  He returned to Raton, to assist the high school team. He too wants to keep up his tennis.  “I’d really like to focus my game.”  To support himself he does online tutoring.

Back in the 1960s, Bonahoom thought she might sink roots in Colorado. She was happy teaching at a Colorado Springs high school and planned to stay there. But when her father died, in 1966, she came back to Raton. She left again for a spell to obtain a graduate degree. That done, she returned for good. 

“This is really a sweet community,” she said. “I love the people here.  I am proud of them.  We’ll never see Raton like it used to be, but we still hope.”  

At age 73, Bonahoom spends a great deal of time taking care of her invalid aunt who is 105½ years old and lives with her. When Bonahoom has time, she thinks about what is wrong with tennis locally. Deep down, she knows the answer. 

“Kids here don’t realize that tennis is a lifetime sport.”  












Shown above is the 1961 Raton High School Boys Team.

Toby Smith, a member of the board of directors of the Northern New Mexico Tennis Association, can be reached at tobysmith68@gmail.com.

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