By Kyle Daubs
For the first time in what feels like ages, Dwight Perry is finally slowing down.
He will guide his Green Wave tennis players in a final sectional that begins Friday at St. Anthony.
The ageless wonder has been a fixture of coaching Mattoon sports for decades. Perry has been a head coach for girls tennis for 23 years over the span of three different stints. He has two stints as a boys tennis head coach, and countless years as a boys assistant.
Then, throw in his 253 girls basketball wins that included 11 straight regional titles, three state appearances and a fourth-place finish, and his career becomes both more expansive and impressive.
In a year that has featured many surprises, to some this comes as another shock added to the layers in progress.
“I can’t believe he is really retiring,” said Sheila Wilson, member of Mattoon’s fourth-place state basketball team in 1977. “He should. He’s put in the time for sure.”
At the high school level, Perry has been a key face for women’s sports, especially at tennis. Last Wednesday, Perry stepped foot on MHS Tennis Courts for the last time as the girls coach. Entering his final season, Perry owned a record of 147-99 in dual contests, a record that won’t likely be touched in a very long time.
To those close to him, winning was something always on his mind.
“He is so competitive,” said boys coach and assistant girls coach Joey Boyer. “Everything is a competition from who is getting up first or to who is getting the first cup of coffee in the morning on an away tournament.”
And when he means everything is a competition, Boyer means in everything.
“We never broke any laws, but it was always a competition to who was going to get the kids to the match first,” said Boyer. “He had a suburban. I had a suburban. Every time that we were getting to leave, the first thought in Dwight’s mind was who is leaving the parking lot first? Then, every time, he would find a way to beat me. He’d find some random country road that would lead him there and always get there first.”
After more than a decade of coaching alongside Perry, Boyer has seen it all. Boyer began teaching in the Mattoon district in 2008, when Perry began his third stint as the girls tennis coach.
“When I first became a PE teacher, there were two interests I really had,” said Boyer. “I wanted to coach basketball and tennis. My first year, Dwight came back to start his second stint. For 13 years, I’ve learned so much from him leading the way.”
Boyer took over the boys program in 2010 with Perry providing help as an assistant coach. After a tumultuous 1-12 season to start, the boys program has grown into a contender, even winning a sectional championship in 2017.
Given his own success, Boyer still credits much of that growth to his experiences coaching with Perry.
“From running practices, relating to players, how to progress and evolve as the sport changes,” Boyer said. “I think every coach needs to understand this important concept. He made me understand the importance of going to coaching clinics. There’s an importance in offseason programs and running camps and how it was important to help grow the program. We’ve been through it all. He’s really helped me be the coach I wanted to be.”
The last decade has seen one of the best runs from a sport at Mattoon High School. From 2010-2015, the Lady Wave won six straight sectional championships and posted a 58-11 record in dual matches.
“We couldn’t have done it without Coach Perry, Coach Boyer, and Bo Seaman,” said 2013 grad Caroline Zuhone. “They were super supportive and we could always laugh and joke around. They made the season fun, but they also knew how to motivate us in gear. I think one thing that was really cool for me was that Coach Perry first taught me how to play tennis when I was five, so getting to play on his team was awesome.”
Molly Nguyen, Mattoon’s first NCAA Division I tennis recruit in decades, was a four-year starter during some of those years.
“One of the best parts about playing for Coach Perry is that you always knew he had your back,” said Nguyen. “He never gave up on his players. Whenever I would feel nervous before a match or frustrated during, I would always ask Coach Perry to come to my court because whether I won or lost the point, he would always have a comforting smile and give encouraging words.”
Even stretching back to the early beginnings, there’s proof that some things never change.
“He was probably the best coach I have ever had or seen,” said Wilson. “He was easy to play for and didn’t expect anything from anyone that he wouldn’t do himself. I just don’t have a single negative thing to say about him. He was a positive influence in my life and I wish him the best. Mattoon’s been lucky to have him coach for as long as he did.”
Perry will be dearly missed, say his former players.
“Coach Perry was such a positive spirit to be around and always made tennis enjoyable,” Nguyen said. “He has been coaching for so long and deserves the best. I will always cherish those four years of having Coach Perry as my coach. I think I can speak for everyone that he will be greatly missed.”
However, not everyone is buying that retirement is going according to standard rules.
“No way,” said Boyer. “I told him he would be out there in a wheelchair at 100 years old. He loves the game too much. He’ll help me with the boys in the spring and then be a volunteer coach. He will always be around for the kids when he can be.”