by Dave Lohse
Associate Sports Information Director, Retired
One of the earliest programs in Carolina’s 50-year history of women’s athletics, and one of it’s most successful, is women’s tennis. Quietly successful for decades, the program has been a major part of the history of the last century in Chapel Hill.
The current leader, one of a long line of extraordinary head coaches? Brian Kalbas.
A Notre Dame alumnus and former head coach at William & Mary, he arrived at Carolina in the fall of 2003. And on March 20, Kalbas earned his 700th dual match victory as a head coach when the Tar Heels defeated Boston College. Since that day, his Tar Heels have remained undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country.
In fact, Carolina has been ranked in the Top 5 of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings every ratings period since 2010, speaking to the program’s remarkable consistency, not to mention its unrelenting excellence.
When Kalbas arrived in Chapel Hill, he joined a legacy of tremendous coaching excellence in the women’s tennis program. The origins of the program include the legendary Frances Hogan, who served as Carolina’s women’s athletic director until 1985 after her coaching career ended, the classy and beloved Kitty Harrison, former UNC player Roland Thornqvist and Jen Callan, who delivered an ACC championship in her first season in 2002.
Kalbas understood the task at hand and how hard it is to achieve excellence in a sport with so much balance on the national level.
“When I arrived in Chapel Hill, I realized building a true championship level program was a slow process. We wanted to get the culture right and bring in the right people,” said Kalbas. “Shortly after I arrived, I attended a Baddour Leadership Academy presentation by coach Dean Smith. He emphasized that you should never sacrifice character in the recruiting process. I felt that he was staring right at me and it became apparent that I needed to bring in the right players and establish a culture that would make this University proud.”
Kalbas has, indeed, made this University proud. Since 2011, his teams have won six Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championships and six ITA indoor collegiate national championships.
But Kalbas points to the 2009-10 team as the team that turned the corner for Carolina – and for the great things to come.
“2010 was the breakthrough year for our program. We beat then-defending national champion, Duke, that year three times,” said Kalbas. “We had great senior leadership that year in the form of Sophie Grabinski, Sanaz Marand and Katria Tsang. We hit our stride and fully understood what it took to develop players and get better on the court.”
That season the Tar Heels reached the Final Four – beating Duke in NCAA quarterfinals.
“It was the season that I think jump started us to another level,” he said.
It was also the year when Kalbas felt his approach to recruiting changed.
“All of a sudden, I felt we were getting more attention from top echelon, blue chip players who were now coming on unofficial visits. Instead of rebuilding every year I felt we were in a position of reloading every season,” said Kalbas.
The 2011 team saw Kalbas’ program clinch his first ACC Championship. They have gone on to win five more since then.
All through the process of program building, Kalbas has earned the undying respect and love of his players.
One of those players is Shinann Featherston, who played from the fall 2008 to the spring of 2012 before earning her Bachelor of Arts in 2012 in exercise and sport science and political science.
Featherstone played on Kalbas’ first NCAA Final Four team in 2010 and a year later her singles win clinched a 4-3 win over Florida State in the 2011 ACC Tournament final.
“One of Brian’s greatest attributes is the fact he is simply a tremendous person. He cares deeply about his players,” she said. “I came to Carolina because of Brian and because he is a person of his word.”
A Queens native whose parents were New York City firefighters, Featherston was one recruit Kalbas worked very hard to land in the process of building his program. Coming from a family of five kids, all tennis players, she possessed a strong desire for obtaining a top-flight education.
After earning her undergraduate degree, she attended graduate school at Carolina from fall earning a JD from the School of Law and a master’s degree in sport administration all while serving as a volunteer assistant coach from 2014 to 2017. She now works as the manager for legal and business affairs for Major League Baseball in her native New York City.
“He truly cares deeply about his players as human beings and their lives after Carolina. His work ethic is second to none. He will do anything extra that is needed to help his players become better players. He is so genuine and caring that his players work hard to excel under him and prove the reality of his leadership skills,” Featherson continued. “Like Dean Smith and Roy Williams, he promotes a family attitude and recruits players who have strong family ties. You can see that in his success.”
Kalbas knows that it is not merely the quality of his players’ talents that have made the difference in UNC’s historical championship run over the past 11 years.
“Year in and year out we have been very good. We have consistently had great leadership and our seniors have done an amazing job in that respect,” he said. “We thrive in a team first mentality. We thrive in hostile environments. We play great on the road consistently. We have a great culture of competitiveness in our program just like Anson Dorrance talks about. We don’t worry about rankings, we just go out and play and if someone is going to beat us, they have to out compete us and outperform us.”
Kalbas knows that he cannot do it alone, as he also credits associate head coach Tyler Thomson for recent success in the program. He says much of the credit for the last three indoor ITA titles must go to Thomson.
Another former player who has nothing but praise for the coaching ways of Kalbas is makenna jonesa Tampa native who played at Carolina from 2016 through 2021.
Jones played on teams which won four ACC Tournament titles and three ITA indoor crowns. In 2021, she capped her career by winning the NCAA title in doubles with Elizabeth Scotty.
“When you are at the top level of any sport there is very little difference between yourself and the other top teams you are competing with,” said Jones. “It ends up being the little things that separate those teams from one another in the end. The way Brian recruits he clearly shows his leadership and it is clear the culture he has instilled that separates UNC from other programs.”
Jones, the multi-titled player graduated from Carolina in 2020, and is working on completing her masters degree in Chapel Hill.
“When I was on the team here I knew I wasn’t playing because of a certain winning percentage we were pursuing, I was part of a great atmosphere where the team was always more important than any one individual,” she said. “We had a team culture and atmosphere, belief and faith in each other that pulled us through.”
Brian Kalbas has indeed created a dynasty of his own with Carolina Women’s Tennis, adding another storied chapter to the history books of a traditional power. The superb culture of national champions, the ACC champions and the tremendous student-athletes has exceeded expectations with unrelenting excellence – both on and off the court.
“Brian has so much to do with me developing not just as a player but also as a person,” said Jones. “He helped me excel in anything I put my mind to accomplishing. For me, it is not about pure talent, it is about how to get us to perform at the highest level emotionally, mentally and physically.”