The city of Grand Junction has changed in the five years since Clancy Shields was in town — in a good way.
"It's way better, man. I want to come back," Shields said. "The school's awesome, this facility is awesome, it's a nice place to live. I loved growing up here."
Of course, it's hard to blame him for not being able to visit often. His hands are full as the men's tennis head coach at the University of Arizona, where he has led the program for three seasons. This past season, he was selected as Pac-12 Coach of the Year and ITA Southwest Coach of the Year after leading the Wildcats to 17 wins, their most since 2009.
He's back in Grand Junction for the first time to play in the Western Slope Open, which was a staple of his family's summer growing up. He's participating in doubles with his father, Pat.
The Shields family has tennis in its DNA.
"All of us played. Five kids," Shields said. "My brother and I, the two last kids, had the most success with it, so we were kind of fortunate to be the young ones, right?"
The success Shields is talking about isn't limited to his own path to being the coach at Arizona. Both he and his brother, Luke, played college tennis at Boise State University. Luke has been the head coach at Fresno State University since 2015, leading the Bulldogs to their first-ever Mountain West title and their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012 this past season.
Like Clancy, those accomplishments helped Luke take home two major honors: Mountain West Coach of the Year and ITA Northwest Region Coach of the Year.
"Of all the junior players we've had in Grand Junction, those two went to the next level," said Ron Elliott, who has been a youth tennis instructor and an influence on the sport's popularity in Grand Junction for decades. "They not only played for Boise State and were in the top 10 nationally, they became head coaches. Nobody else I know of has ever elevated themselves to be a head coach at a Division I school."
Shields and his siblings were among the many kids Elliott has coached over the years, but Shields stood out because he started particularly young.
"I've known him since he was 6," Elliott said. "At that time, we didn't have a 6-and-under program, so he would come to lessons with his brothers and sisters. Because he was so small, we'd just let him hit on the backboard. That's all he did for about a year, hit on the backboard. He was the most tenacious and competitive of all the kids."
Neither Clancy nor Luke played tennis in high school. Instead, they participated in national and international competitions to better their odds of receiving scholarships. However, Clancy said he always felt like he was representing Grand Junction on the court.
Their plan paid off. They caught the attention of Boise State coach Greg Patton and earned scholarship offers.
Both became Broncos.
"Really, we chose the coach there," Shields said. "We were top 10 in the country most years we were there. It was fun to go to a smaller program and help make it one of the elite programs in the country. The reason we chose a smaller school is, well, we're from Grand Junction. We don't care about the bigger-time stuff.
"We like the small-town, chip-on-your-shoulder, little-guy mentality."
After graduating from Boise State in 2010 and serving as an assistant with the Broncos the next three years, Shields became the head coach at Utah State University, where he led the Aggies to the 2016 Mountain West championship.
Now, he runs a major program where the expectations are growing with each passing year. It's a fun job for Shields, but it's also demanding.
That's why he's so enthused to be back home and back at the Elliott Tennis Center, a place that reminded him of the program where his tennis journey began.
"I owe everything to (the youth program)," Shields said. "It's the most important thing. Making it fun, getting people to come out, Ron and the Elliott family really embedded that love for the sport in me. It made me want to play and see how far I could take it."