Zannis remembered as great coach, better person

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Sep 19, 2015 at 11:28 PM

A sparkling record shows that Pete Zannis was a great tennis coach at Science Hill High School. For those who knew him, the numbers don’t show that Zannis was an even better man.

Zannis, who served as the tennis pro at Johnson City Country Club for over three decades, won five state championships as Science Hill head coach. He died Friday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

As a player, Zannis was a team captain for ETSU during the 1974-75 season when he won the doubles and singles title at the Tennessee Intercollegiate Championships. For his time as a Buccaneer player and later as the leader of one of the premier junior tennis programs in Tennessee, Zannis was inducted into the ETSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1996.

Friends and colleagues appreciated his great impact both on and off the court.

“He was an incredible coach and we were fortunate enough to have him as long as we did,” said Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner. “He had the expertise, and his passion and knowledge for the game was just incredible. It was obvious the impact he had on our teams with the wins and losses and the championships. To just have someone like him in your program, in your community and what he did for the game of tennis, it was incredible.”

After Zannis left Johnson City to move to Hilton Head in 2013, he recounted the 2009 season when both the Science Hill boys and girls teams won state championships as the highlight of his coaching career.

The results were only part of what made Zannis a great coach according to Turner. He liked the positive outlook that Zannis always brought to the court.

“He had a great attitude and always saw the best in everybody,” Turner said. “I never remember him one time having a negative comment about a situation. He always had an easy go-lucky attitude about it and thought about how he could work through it. No more than I know about the real technical aspects of tennis, you could see him walk over to a kid and talk to them during a match and within moments, the whole match would change. He could pick up on the smallest of things to change a game.”

D.C. Smith, the current coach at Science Hill, knew Zannis in different capacities. Smith is the father of Christopher Smith, who won a boys’ singles state championship under Zannis and was the No. 1 player on the team which won three straight team championships from 2007-09.

Smith also served as an assistant coach with Zannis before taking over the Science Hill program two years ago. He credits Zannis for keeping his son interested in tennis, which resulted in Chris Smith becoming a standout player at Chattanooga.

“I saw him work with a lot of kids over the years and I know the kids called him for advice both on and off the court,” Smith said. “He took to Christopher from the very first day and was really helpful with a lot of good suggestions. I was always impressed with how he worked with the kids. How he worked with my own son is the reason my son stayed with tennis. He expected a lot from Christopher on and off the tennis court.”

Smith cherishes his own time as assistant coach. He credits Zannis for putting him in the position to become Science Hill’s head coach, and liked how Zannis was able to deal with any conflict.

“It was a tremendous learning experience for me,” Smith said. “If there was ever any negative stuff, he could work it out with a smile because he had that good demeanor. Just getting to know the person he was, I was proud that my son trained with him.”

Zannis had a big influence on other state champions as well.

He was teaching pro for Matt Czuchry, who won the boys’ singles title in 1995 for Science Hill before moving to Hollywood to become a noted actor.

There were three boys’ doubles teams which Zannis coached to state championships starting with Bryan Breese and current Milligan College coach Ryan Reynolds in 2003

Alexander Greer and Jay Wilkinson teamed up for a state championship run in 2007 and Drew Kerr and John Storie matched the feat one year later.

Earlier this week, Storie posted on the CaringBridge website his memories about playing for Zannis.

“I’ll never forget winning our first state championship in Murfreesboro, throwing my racket into the air, and seeing you run out onto my court to hug me,” Storie wrote. “I know I speak for everyone on that team when I say that all those victories are some of the best memories of our lives.

“You taught us what team tennis is all about. You made us work hard, play great, care for each other, and we had so much fun along the way.”

Ron Froncokski is the longtime tennis coach at Dobyns-Bennett High School. While the Indians were often the Hilltoppers’ chief rivals during Zannis’ tenure, the coaches always shared a close friendship.

“Pete was very competitive, but he had a great impact on the kids he worked with, both at the country club and on the Science Hill tennis team,” Froncokski said. “He had been around tennis his whole life, but he was just a great person, a positive role model for the kids that he worked with. He wasn’t just a great influence as far as tennis. He helped his kids out any way that he could. We will definitely miss him in more ways than one.”

Zannis played for another ETSU Hall of Famer, Buddy Hartsell, during his time with the Bucs. He later won many prestigious tournaments including the old Ridgefields Open in Kingsport. ETSU Director of Tennis Yaser Zaatini talked about Zannis’ impact on area tennis and the Bucs’ program.

“When you look back at the history of ETSU tennis, you realize all he meant to the program,” Zaatini said. “He was a pioneer as a tennis coach in developing the Science Hill tradition of championships and working in the development stages of the kids who went through the country club. We had tennis in the Tri-Cities at the level we had because of him. I’m in awe, now that I’m reflecting on the life of a person I consider a legend in this area.”