At home in the heartland

Nita Martinez has served as husband Dan’s assistant in the Red Oak tennis program since 1995. He says she’s been instrumental in the program’s success. The Tiger girls have won 14 straight league titles, and both the boys and girls made state this year.

RED OAK, Iowa — As 9-year-old Dan Martinez stared out into Levisa Bay from his scenic home in Nicaro, Cuba, in 1960, he couldn’t possibly have known what awaited in his life.

He lived on the country’s eastern edge and was not particularly fond of the English language. He knew two sports: baseball and boxing. He had never even heard of Iowa, let alone Red Oak, Iowa.

To call it unlikely that Martinez and wife Nita would land in Red Oak 16 years later would be a wild understatement. And given the difficulties of his early years, that they’ve stayed for 37 more seems nearly as implausible.

But there he was in 2012-13, taking three Red Oak teams to state: girls basketball, girls tennis and boys tennis. It was the school’s first girls basketball appearance in 90 years.

For his commitment to the youth of Red Oak and his impressive work in the most recent school year, Martinez is The World-Herald’s Western Iowa Coach of the Year.

“I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up,” the personable 62-year-old Martinez said.

Before delving into his more than 900 combined dual tennis and basketball victories, it seems worth exploring how exactly Martinez got from Nicaro, Cuba, to Red Oak. The answer can’t be traced with a straight line.

* * *

Nicaro is a small nickel-mining town. The United States needed nickel for its armor during World War II, so it opened a plant in Nicaro. The plant later closed, but then the Korean War started in the early 1950s and the plant reopened. That’s when Martinez’s father, Joe, took a job there.

His father’s company provided luxurious living accommodations.

“We had maids, gardeners, a beautiful home. Everything was provided,” Martinez said. The family’s backyard led right into Levisa Bay, a nearly landlocked arm of the Atlantic Ocean. A swimming pool was across the street and the country club nearby. It was an oasis of palm trees, beaches and 80-degree days.

Martinez spent half of his school days learning Spanish, the other half English. “I was notorious for skipping the English and going fishing,” he said.

The peace was shattered in 1958, when Fidel Castro’s rebels came out of the mountains and waged battle with the Cuban Army in and around Nicaro. In October of that year, 56 American citizens and three foreign nationals were rescued and sent home. Even though their mother, Joan, and three of the four Martinez children, including Dan, were American citizens, their father was Cuban. So the family stayed put for two more years.

“That was kind of interesting, because we were living in pretty much a deserted neighborhood,” Martinez said. “Where we lived, it was pretty much all Americans for the most part.”

In 1960 they sneaked out of town, America their destination, without Cuba’s approval.

“I remember we had to crouch in the back seat of the car to leave the town so that they didn’t see us,” he said.

The family of six arrived in New York City with $5 to its name.

* * *

They had plenty of family in America to help them get on their feet.

After the Martinezes lived in upstate New York for a short time, a job opportunity took them to Freeport, Texas, where Dan was introduced to football, basketball and tennis.

Another job transfer moved them to Ridgewood, N.J., just eight miles from New York City, when Dan was a freshman in high school. That’s where he learned to love tennis. He graduated from Ridgewood High during the Vietnam War, and his draft number had been called.

Martinez told his family he planned to join the service. His father, a staunch Republican conservative who traveled around the world for his job, would have none of it.

“He said, ‘The hell you will. You’ll go to Mexico with me,”’ Martinez said. “That was the most liberal thing I’d ever heard my father say.”

A recruiter from Central College in Pella, Iowa, visited the high school one day, and Martinez liked what he heard. He signed on the dotted line.

“Two days before I was supposed to fly out to Des Moines,” he said, “I get out the encyclopedia and I say, ‘Where the heck am I going?”’

* * *

Martinez met Nita on his third day in town and then starred on the tennis team at Central. Upon graduation, he took his first teaching job at United Community High School in Boone. Soon he was coaching 6-on-6 girls basketball and baseball, driving the bus and learning how to drive a tractor so he could drag the baseball field.

He was in heaven.

“Quite honestly,” he said, “that experience kind of hooked me into coaching.”

In 1976, Dan and Nita Martinez accepted teaching positions in Red Oak. For the next eight years, Dan Martinez coached year round: football, basketball, tennis and baseball.

He also coached a conference champion boys cross country team, and took the Tigers to state two years in a row. “All I did was try not to screw them up.”

When daughters Aubrey and Danielle came, Martinez reduced his coaching load, eventually focusing on tennis and boys basketball, leading the latter program from 1978 to 2001 and taking teams to state in 1983, 1990 and 1993.

Nita Martinez became his tennis assistant in 1995, and her husband said she has been instrumental in the program’s success.

The Tiger girls have won 14 straight league titles. Atlantic tennis coach Shawn Petersen has been matching wits with Martinez for six years and said Red Oak’s sustained success is no accident.

“He has a passion for the sport,” he said. “He truly enjoys watching good tennis, even if his kids might come out on the short side of the match. ... He’s a master at strategy, as far as how he aligns his team in tournaments.”

After stepping down from the basketball program in 2001, he intended to walk away from tennis as well. But a player, Grant Piller, had different ideas.

“I was being interviewed by the Red Oak Express, and here comes Grant with a contract,” Martinez said. “He says, ‘Coach, if you stay on and coach tennis, I promise you we’ll win a state title.”

Red Oak won the state title in 2003.

“If you ever want me to do anything, just get kids to ask,” he said. “They’re what it’s all about.”

* * *

After a 12-year absence, he was asked again in 2012. Initially he had agreed to join the boys basketball program as an assistant. Then the head girls job came open. He accepted, and he felt invigorated.

He and his wife had been retired from teaching since 2010. Suddenly, being in the gym was fun again.

Last season, however, the Tigers couldn’t win the close games. Seven of their 11 regular-season losses were by five points or fewer. Then it all came together and they won six straight to earn their first ticket to Des Moines since 1923.

“I told people, ‘I should have done this years ago,”’ he said. “Being out of the classroom, focusing on what I was doing. Having the open gyms, doing the scouting.”

At the end of the tennis season, siblings Pete and Kate Walker won the state coed championship. The victory carried deep meaning for Martinez.

“I taught their mother (Kathy) to play when she was in sixth grade,” he said. “My first year, I get a call from Gordon Reisinger, Pete’s grandpa. He says, ‘I’d like you to teach my family to play.’ Kathy was sixth grade. Not morning people. This is 6 o’clock in the morning. Standing on the baseline, there was Kathy (and siblings) Todd and Kristin.”

* * *

He’s a long way from eastern Cuba. His daughters are now successful women. He’s coaching the children of his former players. Dan Martinez knows he made the right decision to stick around. He doesn’t have to look in an encyclopedia for the answer.

“I moved every five years, and when I came here I said that my kids will grow up in the same town and stay in that town,” he said. “The town’s treated us very well.”

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