Tennis ace served up honors as hall of fame inductee

Mark Hazelwood • Jan 23, 2018 at 2:00 AM

Timing was everything for Chris Bleile, a 1986 Norwalk graduate.

Little did the tennis standout know prior to the start of his senior season in 1985 that the program was on the precipice of the greatest championship dynasty in the 73-year history of the Northern Ohio League.

“Whenever I think of my tennis days, I always go back to the 20-0 season,” Bleile said. “And then when you look at what followed. I just can’t believe that when you look at all the great dominant teams from the Northern Ohio League with Willard basketball, Norwalk volleyball, Bellevue wrestling and football, the list goes on.”

Bleile is one of seven members in the 10th Norwalk High School Hall of Fame class this weekend.

A dinner and banquet to honor this year’s class will be held at the Ernsthausen Performing Arts Center at 5 p.m. Saturday prior to the boys basketball home game vs. Huron. Tickets will cost $15 for the dinner and banquet, and can be purchased from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the NHS athletic office.

This year’s other inductees are Dr. Virginia Showers Ingram (academic), Bill Albright (athletic), Dave Ballard (distinguished), Carrie Monnes Sheehan (athletic), Jess Gerken Miron (athletic) and Tim Sommers (athletic).

After a 7-9 season on varsity as a freshman in 1982, Bleile lost just 17 matches over his final three seasons while playing the No. 1 singles position for the Truckers.

Upon graduation, he was the program’s all-time-wins leader with a mark of 67-26, which he held for four years. Still, his 67 career wins ranked in the top 5 entering 2000 — and even today stands just outside the top 10 at 11th.

Bleile is one of just three Norwalk tennis players to reach the state championships in multiple seasons, and is one of four players to be involved in a victory at the state level.

But through all the career and single-season achievements, Bleile will be remembered as the No. 1 singles player for the 1985 team. The Truckers finished 20-0, winning their first NOL title. The Truckers proceeded to win 26 of the next 33 league championships until the league disbanded in May 2017. It is the most league titles won by any school in any sport dating back to 1944.

“Tennis is not a money sport and doesn’t draw tons of fans, but yet it’s been 26 titles in 33 years since — as dominant of a run as there has been in any sport in the area,” Bleile said. “That always stands out to me.”

Bleile was a four-year letter winner in both tennis and golf, and also earned five team MVP awards (three golf, two tennis). He also earned All-NOL honors five times (three tennis, two golf).

A three-time sectional champion and four-time placer, Bleile was doubles champion with Carl Hinckley in 1983, and won the singles title in 1984. He teamed up with Steve Debord as a senior in 1985, returning to the state championships and winning a match.

He was voted all-league first team in 1984 and 1985, and was second team in 1983.

“I think in order to win in 1985, we had to have the success we had in 1983,” Bleile said. “The lineup in 1985 was pretty senior-dominated, I don’t think prior to me there were many year-round racquet club players. But I think because of the 1983 success of Carl and I, tennis became a little more than a two-month sport — and kids got excited about tennis.

“Coach (Dave) Rehnborg pushed the other kids to play more year-round, and slowly we started getting kids there,” he added. “Kids became more interested in tennis, and so much of that was because of Dave. He made the sport fun to play.”

On the links, Bleile was all-league first team in 1983 and second team in 1984. In 1983, he won the Mohawk Invitational and set a tournament record at the time, as well as winning the host Norwalk Invite. He was the No. 1 golfer on the 1983 sectional championship team.

Bleile graduated from Ohio University in 1989 with a degree in business management. He was never far from Norwalk tennis during that time, serving as an assistant to longtime head coach Dave Rehnborg in 1986, 1987, and from 1990-92. The Truckers won four more league titles in that span, including a perfect 21-0 season in 1987.

“It’s gratifying to go in the hall of fame, but I also realize in my case that Carl and Steve were a great part of my success,” Bleile said. “I never made it to state as a singles, just as a doubles player. Had I not had those two with me to help me along the way, I don’t know that I even make it to state at all — and that’s the most interesting part of it for me.

“Had there not been another extremely talented player there with me, none of this may be happening,” he added. “I’m forever grateful to those guys.”

Bleile moved to Florida in 1993, where he served as the Tournament Director for the South Florida PGA tournament from 1993-98. He was also the head rules official of the Dan Marino Celebrity Classic from 1993-99.

Upon returning home to his roots, Bleile was the director of golf operations at Sawmill Creek in Huron from 1998-2012.

During that time, Bleile was also the varsity assistant to Mike Smith, coaching in the St. Paul boys basketball program from 1998-2012.

He’s currently a managing partner at Norwalk Investment Properties and Bleile Consulting.

Bleile married his wife Annie, a 1987 NHS graduate, in September 1993. The couple has two children, son Brandon, a 2015 NHS grad and member of the 2014 Div. II state championship basketball team, and a daughter, Tory, a 2017 graduate and a top-10 student in her graduating class.

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