Along the land that’s home to Washington Township High School’s tennis courts is a small set of bleachers that rests under a permanent canopy. It’s a place for high school players to watch while cooling off from the sun.
The last time it was that warm out here, Michael Schuenemann was there, calmly walking toward the fence, hands in his pockets and comforting words coming from his heart.
“You could be down 0-5 in a match,” Washington Township senior Gabe Donados said, “and he’d be like, ‘(Go at) the kid. Just go for it. Show him you’re not messing around.’ He always had that positive message, that upbeat personality.’”
Schuenemann exuded positivity. It was his way with his players that separated him from the pack of teachers the kids interacted with every day.
It was tragic, then, when the Minutemen hosted their first match of the 2019 season and Schuenemann was no longer with them.
“You expect to see certain faces, certain voices out here,” said fellow senior and four-year tennis player Kevin Hornibrook. “Usually it’s a senior leaving and you can still contact them whenever you want. It’s a lot different when what happened here (happened).”
On April 4, Washington Township’s boys tennis team played its first home match of the spring season. On Jan. 9, less than three months earlier, their beloved head coach passed away after a brief bout with cancer.
Michael Schuenemann, a Berlin native who began his teaching and coaching career at Washington Township 15 years ago, was only 41 years old. He was married with three young children.
Following Thursday’s match against Lenape, the Indians coach called the Washington Township team together and presented a gift card, to be given to the Schuenemann family, in honor of the late coach and the team he left behind.
Shortly afterward, one Washington Township parent approached athletic director Kevin Murphy about her wish to start a fundraiser to get a bench and plaque to put within the tennis court area in Schuenemann’s honor.
“He had a big impact … and we’ve wanted to do something here,” said Bobbi Donados, whose son, Gabe, wrote a scholarship essay about his late coach. “The impact he had on these kids, how uplifting he was. … He was so meaningful for them. It was never a bad day when it came to him.”
Before departing the school following the team’s first home match since Schuenemann’s passing, Murphy pulled a poster tube from a storage space and handed it to new coach John Basile, who worked as an assistant under Schuenemann during the girls tennis season in the fall. The two men unfurled a banner and presented it to the Minutemen players before hanging it in its rightful place, overlooking the courts.
In Memory of Michael Schuenemann: June 22, 1977 – January 9, 2019. Devoted Teacher, Motivational Coach, Great Friend, and Colleague.
“This season is for him. … I know I’m coaching for him,” Basile told his team.
Senior first singles player Nick Curcio said he was “absolutely” playing his final season for his former coach.
“He was definitely a big part in me taking up tennis,” Curcio said. “I remember when I first found out he was sick. As someone who wasn’t only close to me but also shared the love of tennis, it was really hard. He was always in my prayers. And then when he passed, it was also very hard. He was the first person I was that close with that I lost. And then not to mention his kids and family, too.”
Washington Township’s tennis program, a collection of teenagers not unlike any program at any other school, was forced to grow up quickly this year.
The 2018-19 school year began with a highlight: the girls team collected the Gloucester County Tournament championship in early September. But it was only a little more than a month later that Basile said Schuenemann was bothered by symptoms he couldn’t shake.
“I said you should get checked out,” Basile recalled. “And he went to the doctor. And I never saw him again.”
Gabe Donados was at the football team’s homecoming game on Oct. 26 when his mom texted him to let him know the “out of nowhere” news that his coach had cancer. Hornibrook was at a soccer game and saw he had a text message from a senior who had graduated last year.
Basile, a 25-year-old, first-year head coach, gathered his Minutemaids into a classroom at the high school. Less than six weeks after Schuenemann helped guide them to a county championship, he was gravely ill and his assistant coach had to tell the team.
“I couldn’t even get a word out, I was just bawling my eyes out,” Basile said. “To sit there at a young age, and to talk to kids at a young age, and tell them your coach had kidney cancer, it was tough.”
In the 10 weeks from Halloween to New Years, the news wouldn’t get any easier. Schuenemann passed away during the first week of classes after the holiday break.
“It was such a brief period of time,” Hornibrook said. “It’s jarring.”
“I don’t even have words for how any of us felt,” Basile said.
Washington Township teachers and the community at large have since come together to help Schuenemann’s family with fundraisers. In mid-January, the high school’s Interact Club hosted its 16th annual “Monzo Madness,” a dance-a-thon that raises money for ALS, and donated half of the $15,000 proceeds to the family, too.
But now tennis is back at the high school and the grieving continues.
The Minutemen have modest goals for the season. Their only desire is to honor Schuenemann’s memory.
“I’m going to show him I’ve improved, even mentally, through the years,” Donados said. “I wanted to (show) this is for him. Every match, win or lose, try my best.”
Regardless of the game score, remain upbeat. Tomorrow is a new day.
“Come out, try hard, and keep a good mood about things no matter how things are going,” Hornibrook said. “Just keep trying to improve. … I don’t think we have ever gone above .500 since I’ve been playing, but he would always try to keep us positive, always have us looking forward to the next match. Be happy about coming out to practice and playing tennis.”