Written in May, 2003...
Imagine your favorite Sunday School teacher with the competitive zeal of Tiger Woods, and you've got a good mental picture of Murray State women's tennis coach Connie Keasling.
No one has a sweeter disposition than Keasling. But look into her intense blue eyes, and you can tell how passionately she cares about her players, and how badly she wants them to succeed. And while this welding together of kindness and competitiveness is a bit incongruous, it's also what makes her a good coach. Indeed, in the last three years, few coaches anywhere have been as successful as Keasling, whose teams have won three consecutive Ohio Valley Conference championships.
"She's a great coach," junior Melissa Spencer declared. "She keeps us focused. We mean business when we're out there playing, but she never pushes us too far. She's just a great person, she really cares about us. And when we're playing, she makes sure she's with whoever needs her most. If someone's in a third set, she's there."
Keasling was born in 1958 and grew up in Greenville, Tenn., a small town about 30 miles from Johnson City. From an early age, she displayed a keen interest in athletics.
"On my mom's side of the family there were six kids and they all lived out in the country," she recalled. "So we would go out in the country on Wednesdays and on Sundays, and all my cousins and I would get together and play. And my aunt Delores taught us to play basketball.
"We played on a goal on a barn, but we did have a paved driveway coming up to the barn to play on. The barn was real close to the house and it was for cattle."
Her aunt Delores also introduced her to tennis as she took Keasling and her cousins to the recreation department for lessons one summer. In the late '60s and early '70s, most pre-teen girls were either playing with Barbies or obsessing over some rock star. But Keasling was always active, and by the time she was in middle school, she knew that she wanted to be a coach.
"There was just this deep, I don't know," she said, pondering. "It was something that was always in my head, something I always wanted to do. I just knew. Some people just know. And, I just knew that's what I was supposed to do and that's what I wanted to do."
In an age when few girls participated in athletics, Keasling's father encouraged her interest in coaching.
"My father was an educator, and he told me that anyone can be a physical education teacher and anybody can coach," she recalled. "And he did a very good job of steering me toward the things that I needed to do so that I could prepare myself to get a job, and be the best coach that I could possibly be.
"He encouraged me to play as many sports as I could so that I could get a deeper understanding of the different games, experience different coaches, and different coaching philosophies."
Fortunately for Keasling, her middle school had a strong phyiscal education program, and when the bigger kids saw how good she was, they invited her to play on their church league softball and basketball teams.
Greenville High School had just three grades in those days, 10-12, and hadn't had a girls' basketball team in 14 years. So when Keasling was 14, she considered attending a county school. But then the girls' basketball program was reinstated at Greenville, so that wasn't necessary.
Even so, girls in Tennessee played a six-player version of the game with three players from each team at either end of the floor, half playing only offense and half only defense.
Active Games and Contests, published in 1935, explained the reasoning behind the six-player game: "The game resembles closely the men's game but has several important changes designed to cut down running, make the game less strenuous, and prevent roughness and personal contact."
Ask Keasling about one of her players, and she can recite their accomplishments with ease. But, ask about her own accomplishments and she often comes up blank.
Typically then, she has no idea how many points she averaged in high school or whether she was named to any all-star squads, although she does recall making 25 consecutive free throws, which was a record at the time.
She also remembers one particular game against Green County.
"We were a city school and all the country schools had been playing basketball for quite some time," she said. "And we were so tired of getting beat by them and the talk in the newspapers that we decided we were going to eat onions and go out there and if we couldn't beat them on the court, we were sure going to try to take their minds off of what they were doing and try to do something fun.
"It didn't affect them at all though; they were just too good."
While in high school, Keasling also played tennis as she followed her father's advice to play several sports.
"I had never really played a tennis match until I started high school and played for the high school team," she said. "And my sophomore year, I did not win a match until we went to districts, and then I won the first two rounds of the districts."
As a junior and senior, she finished in the top two at the district tournament and earned a ticket to regionals. But she never advanced farther than that.
Today, outstanding female athletes are highly recruited, and have several schools to select from. Not so in 1976. No matter, there was just one school as far as Keasling was concerned anyway.
"I always wanted to go to East Tennessee State," she said. "I wanted to go up there and play basketball and try to play tennis.
"It just so happened that the year I graduated high school, East Tennessee was given two basketball scholarships and one tennis scholarship for women. And so my high school coach called up there and talked to them, and as it happened, that same year, the regional tennis tournament was at ETSU."
The tennis coach at East Tennessee saw Keasling play in the regional tournament, and offered her a partial scholarship on the condition that she play basketball as well as tennis. But that coach passed away before Keasling enrolled in the fall, so she wound up playing for Nancy Boland. In addition to the fact that she was playing for a coach who hadn't recruited her, Keasling's scholarship was just for the first two quarters, so she knew she had to prove herself if she was to keep it.
"I will never forget when the tennis coach, who was also the basketball coach, came in and said she wanted to renew my scholarship for the third quarter and they were also going to include the room fee," Keasling said.
At the time, ETSU was a member of the OVC, and Keasling recalls well her first trip to Murray. "We were on a bus with our men's basketball team, sitting in the front," she recalled. "We weren't allowed to mingle with the guys in the back. Anyway, most of our travel was on four-lane roads, but the road to Murray was just two lanes. I can remember wondering, Where in the world were we going?'
"We played before the men and we won. We went back to the hotel and we heard this hollering going on, and we opened up our hotel rooms and the Murray State women's basketball team was down there. They had trucks, and they were standing up in the beds of their trucks hollering at us because we had beaten them."
After two years, a new women's basketball coach, Susan Yow, was hired and Keasling was told that she could no longer play two sports.
"I chose tennis because coach Yow told me there would be an intense effort to bring in her own players and there would be no guarantee how much playing time I would get, or whether I would be able to qualify for a scholarship," Keasling said. "So, I put all of that together and I felt like the best decision was to stay with the tennis."
Keasling was a four-year letterwinner in tennis, playing positions 2, 3 and 4 in singles. She played in the AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) regional tournament.
Following her career at ETSU, Keasling took a job at Eastern Kentucky as an assistant coach with the women's tennis team and she worked as a volunteer with the basketball team.
After one year at EKU, Keasling was hired by Midway College to coach both women's tennis and basketball. There she was, one year out of college, 23 years old and a head coach in two sports.
"I had Diane Murphy, the head basketball coach at Eastern, and her assistant, Nell Hensley, come up and help me that first year," Keasling recalled. "They showed me how to organize a basketball program, how to do the practices, put in offenses and defenses, and things like that."
Midway had won the Kentucky AIAW Division III Tournament the year before, so Keaslin had a talented, experienced team. Still, at the end of her first year they were seeded sixth in the tournament and were not expected to repeat.
"I'll never forget that tournament," Keasling said. "We were going in as a sixth seed and Sharon McCormick and Teresa Williams, my two big scorers, came up to me and said, 'Coach, don't worry. We'll win this thing. It doesn't matter what seed you are at the tournament. The only thing that matters is that when you get to the tournament, you play hard, and we'll take care of business.'
"And I was like, 'Oh, OK.' And they did it. They scored and we made it to the finals and we won. I'll never forget that. That team taught me what it took to be a champion."
After winning the Kentucky AIAW tournament, Midway advanced to the Southeast Regional, which came as a complete surprise to Keasling.
"I had no idea that once you won that tournament, you moved on to the Southeast Regional, then on to the national," she said. "I didn't know until Linda Buchanan, who was the athletic director at Midway, came up to me and said, 'OK, Connie, now we've got to start preparing to get everything done so you can go to South Carolina for the Southeast Regional.' And I go, 'What?' I honestly had no idea."
Following a first-round defeat in the regional, some coaches would have sulked. Most would have headed straight back to Midway. Not Keasling. "Most of the players that were on our team were from Kentucky and had never been to the Atlantic Ocean," she recalled. "So after we lost, I took the team on over to Myrtle Beach, because it wasn't that far away."
Another Kentucky AIAW championship followed the next year, and a runner-up finish the following year. Then Keasling was offered a position at Murray State as head women's tennis coach and assistant basketball coach.
"I packed my bags and headed to Murray, Ky.," Keasling said. "And I was just going, 'Oh, my goodness. I can't believe I'm going to Murray, Kentucky,' remembering that trip from Austin Peay to Murray when I competed because it hadn't been that long ago. You know, it was only six years earlier that I had made that trip."
Keasling took over a tennis program that was consistently near the top of the OVC standings, and worked under the only women's basketball coach to enjoy any appreciable success at MSU, Bud Childers.
In the next three years, the Lady Racer basketball team went from 10-18 to 17-12 and Keasling led the tennis team to third-place finishes in the OVC in 1985 and '86 and a first-place finish in 1987.
"My third year I had two sophomores, Sheri Chong and Sally Henle, and then I had four freshmen on that team - Bobbie Koehn, Alice Johnson, Nan Fazio and Celine Neefkes," Keasling recalled.
"That year was a very special year because Austin Peay had four Australians who were very, very good. Their #1 player had won the conference for two straight years, and Sally went out and ended up beating her. She just played with everything she possibly had.
"There are only three players in women's tennis history at Murray State who have been OVC Player of the Year: April Horning in '84, Sally Henle in '87 and Melissa Spencer in 2003."
In 1987, Keasling's father had a heart attack, and she left to take a job at Tennessee High School in Bristol, Tenn., to be closer to her family. She also made a lot more money.
"At Murray, I was assistant basketball coach and head tennis coach and I was making $16,000. And I went to the high school and made $30,000 my very first year," she said. "But I saved that money because I knew that I really wanted to go back to college coaching."
In 1992, the tennis job opened again at Murray State and Keasling decided she wanted to come back. There was only one hitch.
"The tennis job only paid $21,000," she said, "And I told them I wouldn't come back for that. I was making $37,000. I wasn't going to come back for $21,000. So I told them, If you can get it to $30,000, I'll come back.'
Well, in order to get that, I had to do study hall and teach physical education classes.
"I still do the study hall. I've been here 11 years, and the tennis job is still $30,000. But that's not the most important thing. When I came back, I knew what I was getting into, and this was what I wanted to do."
In the early '90s, Keasling was at a significant disadvantage compared to other teams in the OVC in that she had only four scholarships while schools like Middle Tennessee had eight.
Still, her teams fared well, finishing in the top four in the conference every year but one, recording second-place finishes in 1994 and 1998.
With increased funding, Keasling has six scholarships to offer now, and she has turned Murray into Titletown as her teams have won three straight OVC crowns.
"I really think the combination of Kerry-Lea Glass and Melissa Spencer, who came in together three years ago, made a huge difference," Keasling said. "They brought the new attitude that we needed to move forward so that we could win these championships.
"They had attitudes of a champion. Anytime one of the other players would go, 'Oh, I don't want to run,' Melissa and Kerry-Lea would look at them and go, 'What are you talking about? You are going to run and you're going to run hard.'
"They never knew anything negative. Everything was always positive. So, I think it was those two young ladies pushing each other, and the positive energy that came off of them that actually helped change mindsets and set the tone for these last three championships."
With Spencer returning next year and a couple of high-profile recruits coming in, that championship attitude figures to remain a part of Racer tennis. Indeed, as long as Keasling is at the helm, you can bet on it.