Dave Crum accentuates each volley with a colorful country phase.
"That's better than snuff," he compliments as one of the girls, wearing a shirt that says "Dave's Angels," hits a nice return.
"I can't hold on to these cotton-pickin' balls," Crum bemoans as a trio of tennis balls fumble out of his hand.
"Red-eye?" he calls out when asking one of the girls if she's ready.
"Oh you crying in a bucket," he laughs a moment later.
This country club sport may seem out of place in the middle of Steppin' Stone Farm, an idyllic country setting for at-risk girls in Keysville. Crum, however, has blended home-spun humor and genuine care into a winning mix for Steppin' Stone for nearly two decades.
Disciplinary problems and bad attitudes may have brought the girls to this Christian-based residential program, but you would never know it watching them interact with Crum.
"Ninety percent of the time, you see a smile on their faces," Crum said after a recent lesson. "That's a good indication there's happiness in their hearts and they're doing all right.
"That keeps you coming back."
United Way of Tampa Bay recently recognized Crum's dedication by naming him one of its volunteers of the year. Not only does he provide tennis instruction to the girls twice a week, but he built two regulation-size tennis courts for the farm when he started his work in 1989.
"God built the tennis courts, I just paid for them," said Crum, who also has twice paid to have the courts resurfaced.
Born in Plant City and raised in Lakeland, Crum played tennis for Lakeland High and Florida Southern College, but determining how long ago he played is no easy task. Crum, who has a cattle farm in nearby Hopewell and has been married to his wife, Sheila, for 52 years, wouldn't give his age.
"I'm old enough to know my job and young enough to still perform it," he jested.
After being introduced to Steppin' Stone co-founder, the late Lois "Grandma" Keiser, Crum came up with the idea of bringing tennis to the farm.
The lessons provide exercise for the girls and some have become proficient at the game. Tennis, however, is just a tool Crum uses to help build confidence and self-esteem.
"It makes you feel really good after you win a match," Austen Abbott said. "You just feel better when you're out here, and Mr. Crum is so full of encouragement."
Steppin' Stone executive director Cynthia Churchill heaped praise on Crum, noting that his positive approach helps balance the harder line the staff has to take with the girls. If you equate Crum's efforts to what a tennis instructor charges for lessons, he's donated more than $250,000 of time to the farm, she said.
More importantly, Crum always shows up with a bright smile and good attitude, she said. He's consistently upbeat.
"I pray on that," said Crum, who also teaches a weekly Bible study class at First Presbyterian Church of Plant City. "I couldn't be of any help to the girls if I came down here with a frown on my face."
It's also worth pointing out that Steppin' Stone's intake day coincides with Crum's weekly lessons. His soothing touch helps the newcomers warm up to the principles of the farm.
"They might be sad or looking down, but you don't hear any of the ugly words," said Joann Mason, who often assists Crum and tennis coach Jim Sun.
Crum's nicknames illustrates the bond he shares with the girls. As they go through a drill, he calls out to them. One is Angel, another is McEnroe. He refers to Jamie Cavanaugh as No. 2 to distinguish her from another Jamie. Nevermind that the other Jamie left the farm months ago.
At the end of this particular lesson, the girls gather around Crum hanging on his every word.
"What do we say at the end of every session?" he calls out.
"Be nice to each other," the girls reply in unison.
It's Jamie's last week at Steppin' Stone because she's graduating. She gives him a hug but Crum refuses to say farewell.
"We never say goodbye because I'm holding you in my heart," he says.
Something tells me Crum keeps every girl in his heart. And vice-versa.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at [email protected] or 226-3406.