By Josh Brown
Troy Daily News
WEST MILTON — Even after six and a half years of battling cancer, Sharon Paul still worked tirelessly to help set up a junior high tennis camp less than two weeks before she passed.
As anyone that ever met her could attest to, quitting was the only thing in the world she refused to do.
“I’ve never seen anybody fight as hard as she did over these years to try to beat this disease that took her,” said Sally Dickison, a former coach at Milton-Union and close friend of Paul’s. “She went through a lot to be able to continue, and she was determined that she was going to fight and win — because that’s the kind of competitor she was.”
Paul, the founder of Milton-Union High School’s girls tennis program who coached the team for 37 years, never once posting a losing record during all of that time, passed away Thursday night at Hospice of Dayton. She was 67 years old. And every person in the Bulldog athletic community whose life she touched since coming to Milton-Union High School in 1973 remembers her as a fierce competitor and brilliant educator and coach — one whose tenacity was only matched by how much she cared about the kids she taught.
“She was such an amazing person,” said Diana Finfrock, a former player of Paul’s who also became Milton-Union’s girls tennis coach after Paul stepped down. “Every person that you ever meet that knew her and worked with her says the same thing. She was one of those powerhouse dynamos. She never stopped. She didn’t let her disease take away her joy. Her joy was tennis, and she found a way to make it work, no matter what.
”The world is going to miss that lady. I’ve decided that she’s up there right now teaching Moses how to play tennis.”
Paul came from Bowling Green and began as a physical education teacher at Milton-Union in 1973.
“Sharon was a great coach, and she supported all of Milton-Union’s sports,” said Tom Koogler, who was Milton-Union’s athletic director for 18 years, including when Paul officially retired from her tennis coaching position. “She was very involved with everything. Sharon and Sally were all instrumental in elevating girls sports at Milton-Union. Back in the day, girls sports were just starting and coming into their own, and those two and Belinda Wright and Kenny Beard were all instrumental in turning them into what they are now.”
She was the Bulldogs’ first girls tennis coach after getting the program started, and she went on to compile a 509-159 record over 37 seasons, never having a losing season.
“I met her in the summer of 1973,” Dickison said. “I was hired in ‘72, and then she was hired in ‘73, and she had asked somebody who she could talk to because she graduated from Bowling Green University, and she called me. And I’ll tell you what, we must have talked for an hour and a half that day. We just became friends almost immediately. We both loved sports and we were young, and we just clicked as friends.
“She never had a losing season. Can you imagine? She worked those kids, and she wasn’t afraid to work them hard, teach them strategy and what they should be doing. It amazed me. She knew so much about the game. That you could coach that many years and not have a losing season — I can’t say that. I coached 33, and I lost plenty,” she added with a laugh. “That’s just a credit to her and her ability to get the best out of those kids.”
“I was coaching at the junior high at the time, and when I needed a hand, someone told me I should call Sharon,” Wright said. “She built that tennis program up. She and Sally helped me a lot with coaching those kids. They were both good mentors. Sharon was just the kind of person that, she could find you what you needed. If she couldn’t do it herself, she had the connections.”
Paul also coached the Wright State University women’s tennis team for five years in the late 1980s before returning to Milton-Union. She was also instrumental in getting the Milton-Union High School Athletic Hall of Fame started, according to Koogler, of which she is a member. She is also a member of the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association Hall of Fame and was the first ever female president of the OTCA, and she won the National Federation of High School Coaches Coach of the Year award and the Ohio High School Athletics Association Sportsmanship, Ethics and Integrity award.
“She was the most tenacious person I’ve ever met, and she was very kind, too,” Dickison said. “She was a tough competitor, too. Don’t ever try to play her at ping pong or anything, because you’ll be sorry you tried that!”
“Sharon and I used to play golf together, and she was the same way on the golf course,” Wright said with a laugh. “I didn’t beat her very often. She was such a competitor. And she was still trying to find a way to get back on the golf course with me recently. She just didn’t want to give up.
“That’s the thing I’ll remember the most. That she just would not give up the fight.”
Paul’s legacy will continue on, as well, in the form of former players that became coaches — including Finfrock, who took over the program after Paul stepped down. Of course, Paul was never far away even then.
“No, she wasn’t. It worked well for both of us, because we kind of swapped roles,” Finfrock said. “She couldn’t do all of the physical parts anymore, but I could. And she was always there. I’d say that she was the brains behind the brawn. It kept us both in contact with the team and the girls. I didn’t replace Sharon — I never could. I was just her front man.
“She truly was the most courageous … she not only knew what to say, but how to say it. And she not only taught you how to play in tennis and sports, but in life. As a young woman growing up, every woman that ever went through her program will tell you the same thing. She taught me more about life and living and courage and facing life head on than any other person I’ve ever known.”
Finfrock’s daughter, Kaci Matthews, concurred.
“When I was in middle school, my mother and aunt (Cheryl Brumbaugh) played together for her, and they always talked about the glory days under coach Paul,” Matthews said. “Just hearing those stories and how much of an impact she made in my mother’s life, I already knew she was an amazing woman.”
Matthews was a star basketball player for the Bulldogs, though, and only played tennis under Paul for one year. Still, that impact was made, and Matthews is now the boys and girls tennis coach at Tippecanoe High School, expanding Paul’s legacy’s reach beyond just Milton-Union.
“She wanted me to play tennis for her, but she was interested in me as a person, too,” Matthews said. “She would come to as many of my basketball games as she could get to, her and her best friend Dicky (Sally Dickison). Those two were always together, and they would talk to me before and after the games, and I just knew she was invested in me as a person. I wish I would have done it sooner, but I did get to play one year under coach Paul in my senior year, and my love for tennis 100 percent grew from just that one season being coached by her.
“Before I got the job at Tipp, I was a JV for Roger Davidson’s boys team at Milton. But she called me before that — she said ‘Roger is going to call you and offer you a job, and you’re going to take it.’ I had just graduated from college and hadn’t found a teaching job yet, and that was my first job out of college. And that triggered a spark. Once I got the job at Tipp, I called Sharon every night worried if I was doing things the right way. And every single season for the past five years, I’ve had to ask her a question or for advice, including this year. To not have Sharon around, to not have her or her guidance or expertise or even just as a confidant, that’s going to be a huge void. I just hope I do her justice by always remembering her, because she always did the right thing — and she always seemed to know what that was.”
Paul is survived by her husband of 38 years, Gene Paul, son Ryan Paul and granddaughter Camryn Paul, as well as numerous other family members. Funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at West Milton United Church of Christ, with former players and assistant coaches serving as honorary pallbearers.
“Nobody will have a greater impact on tennis at our school,” Dickison said. “She’s helped so many of those kids that have gone on to do great things. Over the years we have just had some phenomenal tennis kids, boys and girls, and she’s the one that got them started.
“I don’t know how we got so lucky. She just kind of ended up here, you know?”
Contact Troy Daily News Sports Editor Josh Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.
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