Heflin’s success as tennis coach a net result of caring about kids

May 8, 2017 FieldsColumn

Larry Heflin, shown at the 2016 KHSAA tennis championships, has been coaching for 45 years. He built Lone Oak into a state power, and now has McCracken County among the best programs in Kentucky. (KHSAA photo)

BY MIKE FIELDS

Just as Land Between the Lakes is wonder of nature in Western Kentucky, Larry Heflin is a force of nature when it comes to high school tennis in that part of the state.

Thanks to his competitive fire, coaching acumen and dedication to young people, Heflin built Lone Oak’s program from nothing into a powerhouse, and in the process made the Paducah area a hotbed for high school tennis.

After the KHSAA added team competition to the state tournament in 1982, Louisville and Lexington teams combined to win 19 of the first 20 titles for boys and girls. (Henderson County’s boys were the exception in 1984.)

But when Lone Oak’s girls broke through to capture the 1992 championship, it signaled the start of a dynasty. The Purple Flash girls won five consecutive state titles, and 11 in 21 years.

When Lone Oak consolidated with Heath and Reidland to form McCracken County in 2013, Heflin took the reins of the Mustangs. The winning continued. McCracken County’s girls have won the state title the past two years.

Besides guiding 13 girls’ teams to state titles, Heflin has coached three singles champs: Lone Oak’s Sarah Suitor (2000, 2001) and Robby Robertson (1994), and McCracken County’s Michelle McKamey (2014). He’s also coached five doubles champs.

McCracken County’s 2016 state title was Larry Heflin’s 13th girls’ championship. (KHSAA photo)

Heflin, now in his 45th year of getting net results, has been inducted into the USTA Kentucky Tennis Hall of Fame (2012), and has twice been named National Coach of the Year (2009, 2013).

So what’s the secret to being a successful tennis coach?

“Obviously, you have to be knowledgeable enough,” Heflin said. “But when you’re working with kids, it’s probably more important to have a feel about how to handle their emotions, and the anguishes they go through trying to learn a skill sport like tennis. It’s one of the most difficult sports there is, physically, emotionally and mentally.

“So you’ve got to keep things simple, and make sure the kids know you’re there for them. They’re going to win some; they going to lose some. You’ve got to recognize their ups and downs. You’ve got to be part psychologist, part strategist, part friend and part coach.”

Heflin said he has a basic coaching philosophy when coaching kids in competition: “I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broke, make the sure the fix is doable.”

Suitor, who began playing for Lone Oak when she was in elementary school, credited Heflin for teaching her mental toughness: “To ride through the bad times, get back up, regain your confidence and believe in yourself. And he taught me that tennis is a lot of heart and determination.”

Heflin admitted that Lone Oak’s rise as a tennis power was remarkable.

“When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t think about those things. You’re just trying to take the kids you’ve got and make them to be the best they can be.

“But it’s hard to believe sometimes that it really came about.”

It’s also hard to believe how Heflin’s own rise as a tennis coach and player came about.

After graduating from Murray State in 1971, he applied for a math teaching position at Lone Oak. “The principal was interested in me, but he made one condition,” Heflin recalled. “I could have the job if I started a tennis team. There were six boys who wanted to play.”

Heflin had never played tennis, but he took the position. “The six boys were really good kids, and one of their dads was a good tennis player and he helped me out a lot.”

Ten years after launching the boys’ program at Lone Oak, Heflin started a girls’ program.

“I was lucky. I had a young lady named Cheri Simmons who was a basketball player and a heck of an athlete. She wanted to learn tennis. She learned it quick and won the region singles’ title the first year we competed.

“That kind of started the tradition there. We got a lot of the girls who were good athletes to come out for tennis, and everything kind of took off from there.”

Lone Oak’s girls kept getting better as Heflin kept challenging them with tougher competition. It paid off with the Purple Flash’s first state title in 1992, and that started a championship roll.

With great success came great expectations.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t pressure to keep winning,” Heflin said. “Obviously, you get to the point where the kids understand it and embrace it. There were times when it was rough. But we had great kids and great parents, and it worked out.”

Suitor remembers how Lone Oak became synonymous with top-notch tennis. “It got to where if you met somebody and you told them you were from Western Kentucky and you played tennis, they assumed you played for Lone Oak.”

Lone Oak’s boys enjoyed success, too, including Robertson’s singles’ title in 1994, and a couple of state runner-up team finishes. But St. Xavier was a major roadblock to an elusive team championship, and remains so for McCracken County.

“I’ve had some really good boys’ teams, a singles champ and a doubles champ, but St. X has been really, really dominant,” Heflin said. “But I’ve still enjoyed coaching the boys as much as the girls.”  

Larry Heflin didn’t take up tennis until he became a high school coach. He made himself into a top-notch player. (PADUCAH SUN PHOTO)

Even though he didn’t begin playing tennis until he started coaching, Heflin became a very good player himself in short order. He had two mentors — Paul Rowton, a long-time teacher from Paducah, and the late Bennie Purcell, a highly successful tennis coach at Murray State.

“I learned so much from both of them,” Heflin said, “and I’ll always be thankful they helped me”

Robertson will attest to Heflin’s intensity and determination, not just as a coach, but as a player, too.

Robertson remembers playing Heflin at Paducah Country Club in a match that was anything but casual. Robertson was 14. Heflin was about 40. “I had never beaten him, but I was beating him this time, and he threw his racket from the other side of the net, over the fence and out to the parking lot,” Robertson said with a laugh. “That was a good testament to his intensity.”

Robertson and Suitor are among many of Heflin’s former players who work with current players. “They jump in to help the young kids and encourage them, and that’s a big part of our success,” Heflin said.

Robertson said it’s the least he can do: “I’ve tried to give back a little bit, but it’s nothing compared to what Heflin gave to me.”

Heflin, 67, now holds court at his own facility — the Larry J. Heflin Tennis Center in Paducah, which he started building in 1980 and has been adding to it ever since. It now has 12 courts.

“It’s been my life’s work,” he said.

His life’s work has also been getting kids hooked on tennis. In 45 years of high school coaching, he’s always had a no-cut policy.

“The main thing that keeps driving me is that I love tennis,” he said, “and I want kids to love it because it’s a game they can play for the rest of their lives.”

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