Hedlund is heads above the rest

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Mercer Island head tennis coach Joyce Hedlund councils a student athlete during a state tournament match. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Mercer Island head tennis coach Joyce Hedlund councils a student athlete during a state tournament match.
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Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter

Last week, Mercer Island High School boys and girls tennis coach Joyce Hedlund celebrated her 65th birthday. Eighteen of those years have been spent guiding Island athletes to state titles. And while Hedlund has been a fixture at the courts by Mary Wayte Pool for many years and a very active member of the community, most people don’t know the extent of what she does for the athletes she coaches at the high school.

The most recent state championship came last spring when the Mercer Island boys team won its 17th state title. The girls team has won 24 state titles, more than any other sports program in the state. Hedlund was obviously not the head coach for all of those championships, but she has guided one quarter of those teams to the promise land.

Mercer Island has a rich tradition of great players and athletes down through the years. As in any sport, if you have the horses you have a better chance to win. But with talented athletes come egos, conflicts and the always dangerous element of over-confidence. With that many titles in a program’s history, some people might ask how much the coach has to do with the success.

Hedlund knows her tennis. She knows how to coach. She knows how to correct a misguided backhand or an inaccurate serve. But most of the kids who Hedlund works with have had many years of playing tournaments and practicing at the private clubs on the Island, and most have had private instruction for most of their lives. So what does Hedlund do?

Hedlund has one of the toughest coaching jobs on the Island and is easily one of the best in the state. For starters, the Mercer Island High School boys and girls tennis programs draw approximately 160 kids each year. With so many, you would think that she would have an armada of assistant coaches. But she normally has one assistant junior varsity coach, if she can find one. Coordinating practice matches and league matches, putting together doubles teams, figuring out who would be best suited for singles play, who matches up best with another teams ace, etc., is a lot to juggle.

Hedlund also has the challenge of convincing some players that her 18 years of coaching gives a pretty good perspective on whether or not a good player should play doubles instead of the more high profile singles. I have seen many players succeed and fail under Hedlund’s tutelage, and most have a higher degree of success when they listen to her on this decision.

The most common quote I get from juniors who have been on varsity for a while is, “I need to be more consistent.” As a journalist, I hate getting the same old clich/ quotes from kids. It ranks up there with quotes such as, “We need to take it one game at a time,” and seems like nails being raked across a chalk board. But many of the kids seem to walk onto the varsity team thinking that the season will be easy. Their egos are boosted by playing the lesser teams during the regular season and coming away with 6-0, 6-0 victories every week. But then they make it to districts and it gets tougher. And then they lose. The words “play more consistent tennis” start to ring true. Many realize that taking a chance by blasting the ball down the line is less effective than just returning what their opponent gives them and allowing that opponent to make a mistake.

Any coach has to be able to get their players to believe in the concept of team. In a sport so individualized as tennis, the concept of team can easily get lost. But Hedlund gets her players to believe in the tradition of Mercer Island tennis. That belief in the concept of team sometimes overrides the desire for an athlete to win an individual state title, as it did last season with the boys team. I think that belief in team keeps many of the players focused and gives them great support off the court from their teammates.

But Hedlund’s biggest attribute as a coach, as many players would attest, is the feeling that she genuinely cares for the well-being of her players on and off the court. Loyalty to her players came through this season, not because the team won another league title, but as they endured the growing pains of a young team. Two of her players learned to believe in Mercer Island tennis, pride and family. Those two players, Max Franklin and Matt Ellis, shocked the league by taking the KingCo doubles title. The one person they didn’t surprise was Hedlund.

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