Marking 50 years of Yarbrough tennis in Jasper

HERALD FILE PHOTO
Ed Yarbrough congratulates senior Katy Schnarr after the Jasper girls tennis team won its 21st consecutive sectional championship May 21, 2010, in Jasper. Yarbrough logged a state-record 881 wins as the coach of the boys and girls tennis teams at Jasper.

By Greg Eckerle
Special to The Herald

Jasper High School’s tennis program technically began in 1965, but through its first five years, hardly anyone noticed.

Some players were there because they needed to letter in a minor sport to earn an athletic letter jacket. It was rather carefree. Practices were short. A game of home run derby might break out. There were no drills and no sprints. When a new coach arrived in 1968, there weren’t even any tennis balls at the first practice. When the coach was informed, he drove to a sporting goods store and came back with one can of three tennis balls. He divided the eight players onto three courts, one for doubles and two for singles. Each court received one ball.

But when another new coach, the late Ed Yarbrough, arrived in the spring of 1970, Jasper tennis was immediately transformed, even though he admittedly knew nearly nothing about the sport. But hard work and winning mattered to him. And he took the time to learn. Eventually, Yarbrough’s leadership enabled Jasper to change the entire power structure of southern Indiana tennis. Today, his son, Scott, continues to coach the highly successful boys and girls teams. His daughter, Keri, continues to help at the popular summer tennis program he created and that Scott runs, and his wife, Judy, continues to be a pillar of strength behind the program.

So, this spring marks 50 years of the Yarbrough family being the face of Jasper tennis.

Both Lee Boehm and Scott Newton were on the tennis team from 1967 through 1970, and marvel at the difference made by Yarbrough’s arrival their senior year. Boehm notes that as a freshman, the team’s coach “wasn’t interested in teaching us,” and at practice would usually grade papers from his high school classes. There was virtually no instruction for three years. At some road matches, the coach would drop the team off, leave to visit friends, then return after the match and just ask who won so he could report the scores.

Boehm distinctly remembers Ed’s first practice in the spring of 1970 at the 10th Street courts. Yarbrough came with a big manual of tennis drills and rolls of different-colored tape. He and the players applied the tape to the court to match the book’s instructions. After a while, as Ed is referring to the book, a player remarked that “it’s been an hour now; we usually go home.”  Boehm recalled that Ed said he didn’t know “where this hour thing comes from, but we’re going to practice. You guys are going to learn some things, and I’m going to learn some things.” Later, when Ed said it was time to run sprints, a player said they didn’t run sprints in the past. That changed, too.

In a 2008 interview after Yarbrough was named National Girls Tennis Coach of the Year, he said, “I think [some of the 1970 players] were used to not working as hard as I expected. The only way I knew about coaching was to go at it hard, that nobody works any harder than we do.”    

Of one previous coach, Newton said, “He was kind of a drive-by coach. We would be practicing, he would drive by and literally toss a couple of cans of tennis balls over the fence, and he was gone. We were a self-taught group, a do-it-yourself tennis team. We were truly at the periphery, the boonies, of Jasper athletics. So when Yarbrough became coach, it was like a jolt. He’s serious. I remember him looking at a book and trying to teach himself how to serve. That’s how studious he was. What he lacked in knowledge, he made up by always being an unbelievable ball of enthusiasm. He took Jasper tennis from the dregs to the cream of the crop.”

As the previous tennis coach, who also assisted with football, left Jasper after the 1969 season, Yarbrough was completing his first year of teaching and coaching basketball in Lebanon, Kentucky. He was already married to Judy. They had made a promise not to return to live in either of their hometowns. Then Jasper Athletic Director Cabby O’Neill called. He knew Yarbrough from his 1963-64 days as a Jasper football, basketball and pole-vaulting standout, and asked if he’d be interested in returning as a coach. The Yarbroughs broke their promise and moved to Jasper. Ed assisted in football and basketball, and Cabby soon told him he also needed a head tennis coach. Although he had never played tennis, Yarbrough accepted, and quickly began his tennis education. While going back and forth to Evansville to complete his master’s degree in 1971, he took lessons from an Evansville tennis pro on how to teach tennis. That same year, his son, Scott, was born.

“We took it on the chin in matches for a while,” Ed said. “But after four or five years, tennis started to thrive. Scott started playing in tournaments when he was 6, and I fell in love with tennis.”

Photo by GREG ECKERLE
Jasper High School coach Ed Yarbrough poses with his 2008 National High School Girls’ Tennis Coach of the Year award.

“Dad wanted to be a head coach,” Scott says. “I think he saw that maybe he could put his footprint on the tennis program. I think he wanted to build a program that changed kids’ lives, and that kids could be proud of.”

Another key was when French Lick Springs Resort’s new tennis pro, Mike O’Connell, introduced himself at a Jasper tennis practice in 1976. Ed began taking Scott to private lessons from O’Connell at French Lick. But Ed sat courtside during the lessons and learned right along with Scott. “Dad would dictate the whole lesson on paper, writing notebook after notebook,” says Scott, who was state runner-up in singles in 1988. “He regurgitated at his own practices what he learned from O’Connell. He became a real student of the game. He always wanted to be on the cutting edge. Whatever new stance or grip came out, he wanted to teach it.”

Ed sent other Jasper players to O’Connell, and the two developed a close relationship, so close that O’Connell spoke at the banquet for Jasper’s 1999 state championship team, and gave the eulogy at Ed’s funeral in 2010. O’Connell, who was at French Lick until 1991 and has been head tennis pro at the Indiana University Tennis Center since 1992, said Ed had seven strong qualities — joy, passion, perseverance, honesty, being competitive, a motivator and love. “No one had greater passion than Ed,” O’Connell said. “Ed would never give up. He could take an average player, and before long, the player was over-achieving. Probably no one in the state was more competitive than Ed. His greatest strength was probably being able to motivate anyone to become better. And he had one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen, the heart of a saint.

“I still have one of the Attitude pins that Ed gave out. He told me, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ So he coached me a little bit, too. He fired me up. What he achieved at Jasper is amazing, because he competed against Indianapolis players that had such resources. Coaches there had a lot of respect for Ed and his program. He was well known all over the state. I have the utmost respect for all the Yarbroughs. Behind the scenes is Judy, who keeps everything in perspective.”

Ed pointed to the importance of starting the summer program for juniors in the late 1970s. “The kids enjoyed it, the word spread, we were winning and we just kept on going,” he said. At the time of his passing, he was the winningest high school tennis coach in the state.

Daughter Keri, who played on the girls’ 1992 state runner-up team, said, “Sometimes we weren’t the better team, but we were the better-coached team, the better-prepared team. Dad had us ready to play a certain game, and other teams were just out there playing.”

Ed knew he was intense and demanding as a coach, with a lot of expectations and discipline. But his philosophy was, if you couldn’t concentrate for a two-and-a-half-hour tennis practice, you couldn’t concentrate for a two-and-a-half-hour tennis match that went three hard sets. “I try to put kids in pressure situations,” he said. “But I’m trying to do the best I can for you. I think of the relationship between tennis and the expectations of the real world. When you’re applying for a job, there’s maybe 25 other applicants. Can you beat them out? And I teach the kids about respect and sportsmanship. What gives me satisfaction is watching a young teenager grow into a young adult, maturing, and knowing I’m part of that, teaching them important things in life.”

Son Scott, who has been coaching Jasper tennis since 2003, is cut from the same coaching cloth as his dad. “That’s one thing we’ve continued. We do this program dad’s way. It’s not the Scott Yarbrough program. It’s the Ed Yarbrough program that gets carried on. It’s easier doing what we do now because the program has been developed. If you had to start from nothing, that’s hard to do.”

Brian Freyberger, who played under Ed alongside Scott on the 1985 and 1987 state runner-up teams, said, “Coach Yarbrough drove us to believe in ourselves and do more than we thought we were capable of. He had a focus on attitude and work ethic that fit with the Jasper community. Coach was always just larger than life. And Judy was constantly by his side. They really put their heart and soul into the program.”

Freyberger enjoyed the honor recently of giving the speech inducting his teammate Scott into the Indiana High School Tennis Coaches Association Hall of Fame, joining Ed, who was inducted in 1994. Freyberger, who always referred to Ed as Coach, not Ed, said, “I see Scott coach at matches occasionally, and he’s the spitting image of his dad. The mannerisms, the leaning on the fence, the handshake, the intensity, the high expectations, the drive and passion, it’s all like Coach. So probably the biggest compliment I gave Scott in the induction speech was to call him Coach for the first time as he was inducted.

“The Yarbroughs have taught hundreds of kids life lessons through tennis that go beyond the tennis court. For them, it’s always been about the kids they’re coaching.”

One of Scott’s favorite memories of playing for his dad was his victory as a freshman to clinch a 3-2 win for the regional championship. Scott had won the first set, 7-6, over an opponent he had lost to previously. “Dad came to the fence, he was pretty emotional, it’s the first time I can remember tears in his eyes. He stressed, ‘Don’t change the game plan. You can do this. Win or lose, I love you. Let’s see if we can finish this off.’ It was cool.”

Nancy Giesler, whose daughter, Erin, was a doubles state champ, and whose son, Neil, was on the state title team, fondly recalled Ed taking the younger kids to summer tournaments. “Ed was good to our kids. They loved going to those tournaments because all the kids went, they stayed in hotel rooms, they had fun. Ed had them walking the straight and narrow — they knew not to mess up. They were going to play tennis, but have fun, too. That was so nice.”

The Yarbrough achievements still resonate with opponents from long ago. Jon Wertheim, who played for Bloomington North in the late 1980s, and is now Sports Illustrated magazine’s executive editor, lead tennis writer and a Tennis Channel analyst for the four pro majors, said, “Scott Yarbrough was a really good player, one of the best in the state. He was very quick, very fast, and also a good basketball player. His dad was a nice guy and a really good sport. He’d play music for all the teams when they were warming up. I remember Jasper as this little town, but they were a real tennis hotbed. It was always very impressive to me how Jasper became this hotbed, and I assumed it was because of the Yarbrough family.”

Jeff Smith, a tennis pro in the Indianapolis area for 40 years, said, “Ed made the tennis in Jasper like the tennis in Indianapolis. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have a background as a player, which Ed didn’t. But he created an environment to get a lot of kids to play a lifetime sport.”

After Ed’s death, the tennis coaches’ association honored him by starting the Ed Yarbrough Community Service Award, given annually to a coach in Indiana with a longtime commitment to developing a tennis program in their community. His legacy had grown a long way from a how-to manual and a team that balked at running sprints. It continues strong with his family, 50 years and counting.

Greg Eckerle can be reached at gregeckerle@twc.com




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