Dave Steinmeyer has been the face of tennis in central Missouri for nearly four decades. His children, John, Robyn and Laura, were all good players, and that torch has been passed on to his grandchildren.

His family is tennis, but he didn’t grow up in a tennis family. “Most of my childhood was all about basketball and baseball,” Steinmeyer says. Still, “My brother, Harold, was 22 years older than me, and he was pretty much a tennis nut.”

But that’s not really what caught his eye about the game. “There were a group of really nice-looking girls that played at the Webster Groves tennis courts,” he says. “So a friend of mine and I decided it would be kind of fun on Friday and Saturday nights to go over and act like we were athletes, play tennis and meet the girls. That’s how I really got started.”

No love lost. That might be how it started, but his passion for the game has long since transcended cute girls in cute outfits.

After graduating from Webster Groves High School, Steinmeyer spent seven years at his alma mater before working 10 years at Westminster College in Fulton. He came to Jefferson City in 1976 and was head coach of the Jays and Lady Jays for 23 years, during which time he won state championships with the Lady Jays in 1987 and 1993.

At age 78, he’s still going strong and remains a driving force behind tennis in central Missouri while working with kids of all ages at the Jefferson City YMCA. “I have so much fun with it; that’s what drives me,” Steinmeyer says. “If you get a couple of kids who have some real drive and want to play, it’s fun to be with them.

“Most kids, you have to push constantly,” he continues. “But you have a few kids every year who want to play; you can’t be any good unless you make a commitment every day. I’m constantly preaching and giving lectures on dedication to get the kids motivated to play. I try to make the commitment by being here a lot to make sure they have somebody to play with.”

You could call Steinmeyer the Pete Adkins of tennis. “He was no-nonsense; he told it like it was,” says Matt Morris, the No. 1 player on Steinmeyer’s first Jays team in the spring of 1977.

“There are some ways that Pete and I are similar, I think,” Steinmeyer says of the Jefferson City football legend. “Our personalities are different in some ways. Coaching is important, but dedication and work ethic are 10 times more important.

“I tell the kids all the time that any time you walk on the court, if you haven’t played as much as the guy across the net from you, you’re probably going to shake his hand and say, ‘Nice match,’ after you lost. But if you’ve spent more time on the court than he has, you’re probably going to win. That’s the way kids need to look at it. Winning and losing take care of themselves, but if you put in the effort, you’ll have enough success to really enjoy the sport.”

Morris knows as much. “I remember one special thing he did for me,” says Morris, a 1978 graduate of JCHS. “I was getting ready to play this guy from Hickman who was really, really good. Everybody thought I was going to get waxed. Coach Steinmeyer and I went and hit on the basketball court at the high school, and I think it was during a dance [in the cafeteria]. That was on a Saturday night, and that was a really good warm up for me.

“I ended up beating this guy [the following Monday], and I think it was because coach had me doing some extra work,” Morris continues. “He’s always been around and helping kids. I think that’s pretty special.”

It was the Morris family that helped Steinmeyer get his footing when he first came to Jefferson City.

“Matt was a nice player, completely a baseliner,” Steinmeyer says. “But the whole Morris family, they were a milestone in Jeff City when I got here. They were all the tennis talk. Those were the names. Those guys [including Matt’s brothers, David and Robert] really kept the program going for a long time.”

Steinmeyer has apparently used a valuable poker technique during his coaching days — the art of the bluff.

“One of the first times we met him, we all sat down with him in the lunchroom at J.C., and he told us we were all expected to run a mile in five minutes, 30 seconds,” Matt Morris says. “That was about two months before the season started. So everybody was trying to run as much as they could. Back then, nobody ran unless they were on the track team, but we were all running around the school trying to get ready.

“Then he took us down to the track one time; it was the only time he followed through on it. I think maybe somebody came close [to running a mile in five and half minutes]. I didn’t. That was like breaking the four-minute mile now. It all went away. I guess it was a bluff, but it sure scared us.”

As if he didn’t keep busy enough, Steinmeyer started officiating volleyball just five years ago — at age 73. Never say you’re too old. “I really got started in it because I didn’t want to go home, sit and watch TV and eat chips and things I really didn’t need to have,” Steinmeyer says.

But it’s tennis — and with his wife of 53 years, Martha, by his side (he didn’t meet her at the Webster Groves tennis courts, by the way) — that keeps him going.

“I want to do it until I can’t do it anymore,” Steinmeyer says. “Eventually, I’ll get too old to do it, but hopefully someone will pick up that lantern because in Jeff City, that’s the only way it’s going to happen.

“I just hope the kids who I’ve worked with are better people when they leave.”