Successful WKU tennis teams of ’70s to reunite at Homecoming

Hasani Grayson

Despite being close with them during his playing days, former WKU tennis standout Byron Thomas hasn’t seen his teammates since he graduated in 1973. 

Thomas, who now lives in Durham, N.C., is one of many former WKU tennis players that the Alumni Association is hoping to bring back to campus on Saturday for a reunion of its tennis teams from the 1970s.

During the decade, women’s tennis had a record of 65-15 in match play and won three Ohio Valley Conference championships and two Kentucky Intercollegiate Woman’s Championships. During the same time period, the men’s teams went 154-53 in match play winning seven OVC championships. 

Many of the players who were so dominant during that decade have not seen each other since they graduated. 

Thomas, named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year in 1973, was part of a six-man WKU tennis team that won more than 80 percent of their matches from 1972 to 1973. 

With four of the six players being Swedish, the only other American on the teams during Thomas’ tenure at WKU was Phil Aurabach. 

“I was closer to Phil than probably anybody else on the team,” said Thomas, who said he’s unsure if his schedule will allow him to make the trip back for the reunion. “I would love to see him again.”

Thomas, who only played two years at WKU after transferring from Palm Beach Junior college, said that he was recruited by former tennis coach Ted Hornbach at the Junior college championships. 

Hornbach, who Thomas estimated was affiliated with WKU athletics for about 75 years until the time of his death, was the coach during the team’s various runs to conference championships. 

“He was an old-fashioned, hard-nosed coach who was good to his players and loved to win,” Thomas said.

But it wasn’t just the men of WKU tennis who were dominant in the 1970s. 

Women’s tennis won the state title in 1975 and remained competitive against the tougher opponents in the conference throughout the rest of the decade. One challenge that Katie Tinius and her teammates looked forward to was their matches against their cross-state rival Kentucky.

“We beat them, but we did not like UK,” Tinius said. “They couldn’t stand us and we couldn’t stand them.

“We hated them on the court, but off the court we were fine.”

Since then, some of her former rivals have become friends of hers.

Likewise, Tinius remained close with her teammates, particularly doubles partner Shelly Whitney, but is ready for a reunion.

 “We were in each other’s weddings,” Tinius said. “I haven’t seen her in about 20 years, so I would love to see her again.” 

Ray Rose, the former WKU men’s tennis coach, also said he has had trouble keeping in contact with the players he coached in the early 1970s. 

Rose, who coached from 1972 until 1975, said he only knows of two of his former players who live nearby, one of whom coached tennis at Greenwood High School — Dr. Barrett Lessenberry, who operated once on Rose’s knee.

“But he’s the only one I’m in touch with, the only one I even know where he is,” he said. 

Tinius said she hopes that the former players and coaches will be able to make it back but acknowledged that coordinating events like this can be tough.

“I appreciate it,” she said. “I think it’s great they’re trying to do this.”