50 years later, LPHS state champs of the court reunite and meet their young counterparts

Members of the 1968 LaPorte High School Boys state tennis championship team pictured with their banner are (from left) Tom Ivey, Dan Bigg, Tom Essling, Richard Friend, Evan Zelden, and honorary team member Quinnell Essling.

Sporting a racket emblazoned with “50” for the visiting champs, LaPorte No. 1 singles player Andy Emmons returns a shot in his match against South Bend Adams’ Tommy Han.

Richard Friend, Tom Ivey, Evan Zelden, Tom Essling, Beth LeRoy, and Quinnell Essling watch their young successors.

Honorary 1968 team member Quinnell Essling shows off her guns.

Beth LeRoy, wife of the late Coach Bob LeRoy, speaks to those gathered.

A young player reveals the new LPHS tennis T-shirt donated by the 1968 team. Each boys and girls team member will receive one.

Current Coach Don Varda holds up an autographed oversized tennis ball from the 1968 team.

Past meets present: Members of the 2018 LPHS boys tennis team who won the Slicer Tennis Invitational pose with the 1968 team.

Back to their old battleground: 1968 players pose on the lawn of the Civic Auditorium. Tennis courts used to be located outside the Civic behind them. The courts have since been removed because newer courts exist at Kesling Park and Kiwanis.

WNLP photos and story by Bob Wellinski

It’s been 50 years since the 1968 LaPorte High School Boys Tennis Team won the school’s first and only IHSAA state tennis title. Five of the championship team’s 10 members returned to the hometown courts and were recognized during a ceremony following an exciting Slicer Tennis Invitational Saturday afternoon, Sept. 15, 2018.

The 2018 LPHS boys team served up an exciting win Saturday against a very strong South Bend Adams in front of the special guests in attendance.

Those from the championship team attending the ceremony were: Tom Ivey, Dan Bigg, Tom Essling, Richard Friend, Evan Zelden, and coach Bob LeRoy’s widow, Beth LeRoy. During the ceremony, Quinnell Essling. was recognized as an honorary team member.

We really did it. It was amazing to be a part of state championship team and today’s celebration,” Evan Zelden remarked. “It’s still unbelievable 50 years later. I guess we were really OK, maybe better than we thought we were.”

The 1968 team won the state title during its second year under the IHSAA after placing fourth the first year. Dan Bigg also took home an individual state championship trophy in 1968. The team set a record 42 points in the sectional, a record that still stands today.

The players’ connection goes beyond their high school years. Each player talked about their youths growing up within blocks of the Civic Auditorium, and more importantly their formative tennis years on the Civic tennis courts. “We had all played tennis together growing up. We all lived around the neighborhood and knew each other so well. Everyone was within three-four blocks of the Civic,” Tom Ivey recalled.

The players agreed that because of their proximity to the Civic, it was a natural place for them to gather. They each spoke highly of the city park department’s tennis program, which kept them, and nearly 400-500 youngsters, involved in the sport. But they said it was the adults, including Zelden’s father and Bob Richter, who took time to hone the tennis skills of the eventual state champions.

“LaPorte is a special community because of the programs the recreation department has,” Zelden said. “My dad, along with several others, were the mentors who would take time to help the kids. We owe what we accomplished in high school to what they gave us and showed us.”

But it was a first-year tennis coach, who ironically knew nothing about tennis, who gave the players what they needed to capture a state title. The players agreed it was the late Bob LeRoy’s coaching style that gave them the intangibles to win state. “He knew how to motivate us. He taught us what it was like to be in shape. He liked to kill us,” Ivey joked. “But, that made the difference.”

Dan Bigg added, “He molded us together; the structure … discipline. He didn’t have a lot of tennis experience, but he had coaching experience and it showed.”

Tom Essling said that while he was coaching the team, “we were teaching him tennis. It was a win-win.” LeRoy taught the team something else that carried over into Essling’s adult life: “You win some points and lose some points, but when you get knocked down, get up and brush yourself off and keep moving ahead. That discipline carried over into my career.”

Teammate Richard Friend likened the team to a steamroller, flattening their opponents en route to the state title. He added that as good as each player was individually, it was their cohesiveness, “a band of brothers,” that kept them focused and supportive of one another.

And it was during Saturday’s ceremony that the teammates were able to acknowledge a lifelong tennis teammate who wasn’t allowed to join the high school team. The teammates made Quinnell Essling an honorary 11th member of the state championship team.

Quinnell, sister of Tom, grew up playing tennis with the guys and held her own, even beating some of them. But because at the time there were no women’s sports, she wasn’t allowed to join the team.

“I’m extremely happy today that after 50 years, we’re adding a player to the team,” Bigg stated. He recalled “a little blonde-haired girl lived across from the Civic who played tennis with the boys all the time. She could run, hit, wear you out and even beat some of the boys. She deserved a chance to be on our team.” Bigg said she asked Coach LeRoy if she could be on the team, but because there were no organized girls sports at that time, he had to say no.

“Our teammates decided to add a member to the team today. We are making Quinnell Essling an honorary member of the state championship team,” Bigg told the crowd.

A speechless Essling said she was “overwhelmed” by the announcement. “It’s a shock.” She confessed that not being allowed to join the team in her high school years hit her hard and she stopped playing tennis for a while. But eventually she returned to teach and play the game she loves. “I became a stronger player because I was competing against these men.”

All agreed that it was a lot of hard work, but one thing they remember was they went out and had fun, something Bigg stressed to the young Slicers. “You guys are sitting on a volcano and it’s going to happen for you. Be hard enough on yourself to want to get better every day, but be easy enough on yourself to enjoy your sports.”

The 1968 team presented the current boys and girls teams with new T-shirts with a design of a volcano shooting out black and orange tennis balls.

2 Responses to “50 years later, LPHS state champs of the court reunite and meet their young counterparts”

  1. Doug

    Sep 19. 2018

    Great to see this story. I remember Quinnell from either the late 60’s or early 70’s. My mom signed my older brother and I up for summer tennis lessons at the Civic. I think she did it to get us out if her hair?
    Quinnell was our teacher back then. She must have had a lot of patience, as I remember all we wanted to do is hit home runs over the fence. We also went to go watch some tennis matches up in Kalamazoo. It was a great summer. Thanks for the memories Quinnell.

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  2. Michelle Kois

    Sep 22. 2018

    I never knew my cousin Tom Essling was on the state championship team. Goes to show you learn something every day. I was also pleased to read that Quinnell was recognized as an honorary team member. Well deserved for a very special (and dear) person.

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