Xavier Sanga photo

Xavier Sanga, a senior, was Middleton's No. 1 singles player last season.

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MIDDLETON — When first-year Middleton boys varsity tennis coach Kalla Schaefer was young, her mother, Kris, sought to spark an interest in tennis.

Garbage cans were set a distance apart on the family driveway. A step ladder was placed horizontally on the trash cans. A bedspread was draped over the ladder.

Kalla could hit tennis balls over the makeshift net, an innovative way to let the youngster practice and keep her close to home.

Despite those best intentions, Kalla wasn’t digging it.

“When I was a child, I wasn’t very interested,” Kalla Schaefer said Tuesday while sweeping the courts before Middleton team tryouts. “They had to cajole me to get me on the court.”

She liked karate in elementary school and volleyball in middle school, but was cool to tennis.

“That was my dad’s work,” she said. “I was exposed to it, but it wasn’t my passion.”

That all changed when she was 14 and decided she wanted to try out for the Madison Memorial girls tennis team and asked for help from her father, Lyle Schaefer, who’s well-known in Madison tennis circles and runs his own tennis academy.

“I asked, ‘Can you help me?’ ” she said. “I’ve been playing ever since. He is an excellent teacher.”

Since then, her passion for the sport grew and grew.

Kalla Schaefer, a 2007 Madison Memorial graduate, qualified for the WIAA Division 1 state individual tournament all four years, including advancing to the third round in her senior season in 2006.

She earned All-American status at UW-Whitewater, playing singles and doubles, and helped her father (and mother) instructing young tennis players during her college years. That has become full-time work after college at the Lyle Schaefer Tennis Academy.

She has been with the Middleton boys program for three seasons and the Cardinals’ girls for two, coaching various levels. In January, she was named as the boys coach, replacing Deke Bradley, who stepped down because he couldn’t manage the time commitment with the job he had.

“It’s definitely a step up,” the 28-year-old Schaefer said. “I know a lot of the boys already who I had on the JV team or the freshman team, or who I hit with when they were younger.”

That familiarity should help with the transition.

“She is organized,” said Middleton sophomore singles player Ryan Gold, who hit with Kalla and Lyle Schaefer two or three years ago. “She has a lot of experience coaching others. She knows a lot about the game. She is positive.”

Knowledge of the game demonstrated by the coach always is critical to players, whether the coach is a male or female.

“If you are open and the expectations are clear, so they know what to expect, and you know the game, I don’t think it matters,” she said, citing longtime Madison La Follette boys and girls coach Nan Perschon.

Schaefer said expectations always are high for the Middleton boys team, which advanced to the Division 1 state tournament semifinals last year. The Big Eight Conference title and a team state berth remain goals, but she said she doesn’t plan to put pressure on her team, expected to be led by Xavier Sanga, Gold, Haiwen Dai, Rafael Sanga and Mason Pyle.

“I would expect us to make state based on the way we performed last year and losing only three (from the lineup),” said Gold, who played No. 2 singles as a freshman and reached the second round of the WIAA Division 1 state individual tournament last year. “I think we still have it in us.”

Like Bradley before her, Schaefer expects to continue coaching the Cardinals to play strategically and aggressively on the court. Her own game featured aggressive play.

“I had a different style of game,” Schaefer said. “I was not a baseliner. I used to hit slicing shots, or I’d come in and hit volleys or overheads. I had a touch game more than a power game. It was a little unorthodox.”

Schaefer understands every player is unique out on the court.

“You are on your own, and sometimes, it gets lonely out there and you have to dig deep,” she said. “Some people are different in the way they want to be coached. Some want to hear more. Some want to hear less.”

As her first season as head coach begins, she hopes to strike the right balance with each player.

“This is a great opportunity,” she said. “We have a great group. I am excited for the season.”

Contact Jon Masson at

jmasson@madison.com.

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.