New Mexico’s middle school tennis program celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.
Didn’t know middle schools offered tennis competition? In fact, more than 600 youngsters took part in 2016. Starting with practices in late August, each of the 50 teams involved played six dual matches. Everyone – including beginners – participates in at least two matches. No one gets cut.
Surely the most remarkable sight in middle school tennis this season was the presence of Loren Dils as an assistant coach. Dils, now 50, was diagnosed 9½ years ago with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
That was the beginning of a long struggle for the former state high school doubles champion and Division I college athlete. Before he became ill, Dils had most distinguished himself as a tennis coach.
For 13 years, he was assistant coach of the University of New Mexico men’s team, under his twin brother, Alan, the Lobos’ head coach. Before that, he was a volunteer assistant for five years.
So there was Loren Dils one recent weekday afternoon at the Tennis Club of Albuquerque. Settled in a motorized wheelchair and hooked to a portable ventilator, for an hour and a half he guided and goaded the Jefferson Middle School Jets in a practice. He cheered on players, ran drills and now and then talked with head coach Liz Keefe and the team’s other assistant, Jane Tabet.
It was Tabet, a good friend of Dils’ for many years, who talked him into coaching the Jets. That done, she asked Tanner Dils, Loren’s eldest son, if he wanted to play. Tanner, a sixth-grader at Jefferson, had been on a hiatus from tennis. When he learned his father would be coaching, he jumped right back in.
“You could tell by kids’ faces when I first showed up,” Dils recalled. “How is he going to coach sitting in a wheelchair?”
Very well, it turned out. “Loren has a tremendous knowledge of tennis,” Tabet said. “He knows how to bring out the best in kids. He was a taskmaster at first, but they’ve responded to that. He really built team camaraderie.”
“Coach is easy to understand, and he’s an inspiration” said Cyrus Mingley, 12. Sixth-grader Ella Doornbos agreed. “He loves to teach. He taught me to hold my temper on the court, to relax and stay focused.”
“This has been so much fun and so rewarding,” said Dils, who never expected to return to coaching. “I’m realistic. I tell these kids you don’t have to win every point.”