By Jeff Sikes, USTA.com
Living 500 miles from your nearest teammate makes being a USTA League Tennis teammate a difficult task at best, but Brian Cripe has figured out the recipe for success: lots and lots of e-mail and phone conversations. Throw in that he is, on average, about 25 years older than the rest of his Intermountain teammates, and the disconnect for Cripe to his teammates is literally one of time and location.
Not that it’s stopped the 59-year old Cripe, who cuts a striking contrast to his younger Intermountain teammates this week at the 4.0 League National Championships here in Las Vegas. Just look for the shaggy stark white hair protruding from his hat, and the winners flowing from his racquet. That’s him.
But, though Father Time may have tinted his hair a new color, Cripe’s deft hands and feel around the net have remained ageless attributes to his game, and are helping him keep up with his much younger partner ( Jordan Haslett who’s 19) and his opponents this week.
“He has great touch and he still moves really well,” said Haslett. “I can’t believe it sometimes. You’d never guess (Brian’s) age looking at him play.”
That’s probably the main reason why Cripe’s here this weekend, playing an integral role as a doubles specialist for his team full of Montana mates. The sheer spread-out nature of Montana (the fourth largest state in the Union in overall land mass, 44th in population) make quality players like Cripe a premium commodity.
“The state may be big in land, but it’s still a small tennis community when it comes down to it,” said Cripe, referring to his nine-man Intermountain team, the smallest of the 17 men’s teams here in Vegas. “I never really practiced with these guys this year at all. It’s kind of hard when you’re so far away.”
Cripe actually met up with many of his teammates for the first time at the Montana District Championships this year in Missoula, after being hooked up through a common friend to captain Jeff Henckel, who’d heard about Cripe’s results from the past (he’s a former 4.5 player and still plays age group events) and thought he’d make a nice addition.
While most of his teammates come from the larger, more eastern urban towns of Billings and Bozeman, Cripe himself hails from White Fish, a tiny ski resort town on the far western edges of the state known more for the railway that runs through it, former resident Garry Tallent (bass guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), and, what else…..white fish.
“It’s really a beautiful part of the world,” said Cripe, referring to his hometown. “It’s a great hunting and fishing location, which is a good thing, because I love to do both when I’m not playing tennis.”
Cripe was a late arriver to the game, picking it up on a whim just over 31 years ago from a buddy. His schedule as a train conductor for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad made finding time for playing challenging, since he worked the late shift making runs from White Fish to points as far west as Spokane, Wash. But Cripe took to the sport quick and found he had a knack for it, so he stuck with it, despite the scheduling snafus.
“I just got the bug real bad when I started and it never left,” said Cripe, who’s now retired and even more into tennis. “Not a lot of train conductors play tennis, so it was hard to get started. But, I’d play in places where I had layovers on the job, sometimes on no sleep because I just wanted to play so bad. I’d take off work to play tournaments on weekends and do what I could to fit in tennis. It was a nightmare schedule for a recreational athlete, but I made it work.”
Cripe’s wife Laurie is also big into tennis. She serves as the Director of Glacier Tennis at the Summit, a tennis club in nearby Kalispell. Laurie is also the president of the Montanta Tennis Association and on the Intermountain Section’s Junior Competition Committee. Cripe’s sons Jim (38) and Andy (34) also play, and were both former collegiate players, meaning tennis is a family affair for the Cripes.
“It’s just a great sport and our family is really into it,” said Cripe. “We may not have as many players in Montana, but we love it just the same.”