» News

CP: The Legacy of Loren Dils

February 12, 2013 12:25 PM


The Legacy of Loren Dils 


LorenSONSConnor Dils, who is not yet 4-feet-tall, likes to talk trash.


Connor’s father laughs and says he has no idea where his kid got that from. 

"I never did it," Loren Dils says. "Connor is always saying, ‘I can do it better than you.’  Or, ‘I am going to beat you next time.’ Or, ‘I’m good and you’re bad.’ I get a kick out of it for a while, but then it gets annoying. ‘Enough, Connor!’ I will shout. ‘Enough!’"


The two young boys, one of the trash-talker and the other his more subdued brother, are waiting to get on a court at the Lobo Tennis Club this recent Saturday morning. While they do that, they duel with each other. Not with tennis rackets, but with plastic swords.


Suddenly each boy falls down, as if wounded.


Welcome to the world of Tanner Dils, 8, and Connor Dils, 6.


The Two Musketeers are the sons of former UNM assistant men’s tennis coach Loren Dils and the nephews of current UNM men’s coach Alan Dils.


"Connor went to Peter Piper’s Pizza last night," his father explains. "He played games there and used his winnings to get a sword as a prize." Tanner’s sword is a sheath Connor gave him so they could each be Errol Flynn.   


Connor_and_Tanner_DilsConnor is wearing a Power Ranger Samurai T-shirt. His brother has on a T-shirt that asks, What do you like about school?  Lunch and recess are checked. Science and math are not. 


As tennis-players-in-the-making, the Dils brothers—the younger Dils brothers—are about to experience their first interview. Their swords are put away.


Q: So, Connor (pictured left), tell me. Have you ever aced anyone?

A:  I don’t know. I got a point with them. I think.

Q: OK, Tanner (pictured, right). What do you like best about tennis?

A:  Overhead. 

Q: Why is that?

A:  Because it doesn’t come over to the other side.


"Connor is very goal-oriented," says their dad.  "When he went for pizza, he wanted to win a prize. Tanner didn’t go because he sometimes gets that way."


Being Dilses, it’s no surprise that Tanner and Connor, third- and second-grade students,  respectively, at Monte Vista Elementary School, play tennis. A little swordplay on the side is a surprise. It’s good for them, according to dad.


"They’re kids," Loren says. "I push them, but not too hard. I want to see them laughing."


Connor_and_ex-Lobo_Matt_NeeldThis morning the little Dilses will take a private lesson from Matt Neeld (pictured right with Connor), a former UNM player who teaches at the Lobo Tennis Club when not serving as an undergraduate assistant coach for the Lobo men’s team.


Tanner and Connor started playing tennis two years ago.  Last summer and fall they participated in ANTS –"America’s Next Tennis Stars"—a version of QuickStart started by ex-Lobo Derek Lynch. Tanner and Conner had lessons all summer with ANTS and all fall they played competitive matches at ANTS.  Then, over the Christmas break, they attended Lobo Club camp every day.   


"They needed a break and so did I," says Loren, 47.  


Dealing with ALS


Two years ago Loren Dils helped organize a USTA 10-and-under program at the Lobo Tennis Club.  Amy Badger, who played on the UNM women’s team in the 1980s, runs the program these days, and Dils consults.  He can no longer work with his own kids or any other kids.


As widely reported, Loren Dils was diagnosed with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease, in 2008. His illness, for which there is no known cure, didn’t hamper him the first couple of years.  He hustled about and tossed tennis balls to his kids when they were 2 and 3.  Eventually, however, he had to use a wheelchair.


Loren_Dils_sons_009His ALS is progressing, he says, but slowly. "Five years in, I can still stand up if I hold on to something with my hand. I can feed myself and I can talk fine.  The hardest thing for me is not being able to run with my kids or throw a tennis ball to them."


What Loren Dils can do is watch the growth on a tennis court of the two boys he has raised with his wife. Elaine Dils is, of course, also part of this legacy. 


"You can see Connor really enjoys tennis," Elaine says. "Tanner is a bit more hesitant."


Connor wants to play all the time, according to his father. "Oh, sometimes he whines and says he doesn’t want to, but when he gets to the Lobo Club, he really goes after it."


Both boys started playing tennis when they were 3. "I was hitting balls at them at UNM practices and in the backyard," says Loren.  "Four appears to be a good age to use foam balls.  At 3, they didn’t have the attention span to play very long. So 4 years old seems the best time to start."


Matt Neeld agrees. "It’s absolutely amazing to see how those two have improved."


On this day the brothers are using slightly bigger, pressureless, USTA yellow balls, adorned with an orange swirl. And they’re playing on a 60-foot court. Last year they were playing with foam balls on a 36-foot court. A regulation tennis court  is 78 feet long.


"I hate to say it," Loren says, "but our boys were a little bored on the small courts. I kept them there because I didn’t want to push them too quickly."


He has seen that happen in QuickStart. He has witnessed parents forcing 5-year-olds to use a smaller ball when they barely can make contact.


"You need to move up slowly and learn the strokes the proper way with (the) QuickStart (format)," Loren says. "I wish I had this when I was kid."


Getting a start


g-AandLDils-lgAlan and Loren Dils (pictured, left and right) first walked on a tennis court when they were 9.  Their father, Tommy Dils, now 80, helped build a court across the street from the family’s home on Edward Drive, in the north side of Belen, N.M. Tommy had played, but only a little recreationally. Wearing cowboy boots, he would get out on the concrete court and knock the ball around with his boys.


Connor and Tanner have already played in 10-and-under tournaments. Loren says he didn’t play in a tournament until he was two years older than Tanner. Loren and Alan’s first real lessons came when they were 10, with Dennis Dellinger, at the now-gone Albuquerque Indoor Tennis Club.  Soon after, they worked for a time with Chuck Maguire at the Tennis Club of Albuquerque.


Loren admits that Tanner and Connor have come along faster than he did in tennis. "Connor’s going to be real good. Tanner is very good when he wants to be. Sometimes he doesn’t want to be. Connor is very fast, very athletic. He has a lot of energy and quick hands. Tanner is very strong for his age. He can muscle the ball already."


Alan and Loren Dils are identical twins. When both competed, they had similar strokes and temperaments. Tanner and Connor are not alike at all. "Tanner will go out and work with a small boy, helping him hit a ball." Loren says. "He wants to be a coach.  I tell him, ‘You still have to play if you want to coach.’ Connor just wants to beat everybody."


Loren refuses to offer tips to his sons when they are taking lessons. The very idea makes him cringe. "Matt and I are on the same page. Matt understands my philosophy, which is learning tennis the right way, with good skills and making it fun. It’s not about standing in line and hitting one ball after another."


"Connor has a really good forehand," Loren says. "Sometimes he will run around his backhand to hit a forehand. His backhand is more of a work in progress."


"Another forehand," Connor calls to Neeld. "Can we? Please?"


Later, as Tanner gets ready for his lesson, he says, "Can we do overheads? Can we? Please?" 


Connor can be a very good or a very bad sport.  Last fall, the brothers met in the finals of an ANTS tournament and a blue ribbon was at stake. Tanner won.  Connor was not particularly happy.


"Connor doesn’t realize he is two years younger," says his father. "He thinks he should win on the court with Tanner—all the time.


Is such competiveness good at their age? They definitely have a choice whether they want to play or not," says their mother.  "They get tired once in a while.  That’s why we cut back a little this year. I think they were a bit burned out."



The Dils Family in 2009. Loren, Elaine, Connor and Tanner. 


Elaine Dils played soccer as young girl, and later at Sandia High School.  Connor is playing soccer and is flourishing in that sport, Elaine says.  Tanner is going to start taekwondo.  Both boys took part in their school’s Lego Club last year and the Chess Club at school may be a possibility this spring.


"I believe that you need to expose them to what is out there and let it happen," Elaine says. 


Alan Dils’ two daughters, Brenyn and Ayla, are about the same age as Tanner and Connor.  Though competent at tennis, they are for the time being concentrating on soccer.


Connor_and_TannerWhen the private lessons end, it’s time to pick up the balls. For many people who take lessons, gathering balls you have hit with a pro can be a chore. For the Dils boys, it’s a blast. Picking up balls means riding on the front of your father’s motorized wheelchair and stepping off to scoop up a ball or three.


Q: So, Tanner, why is your father in a wheelchair?

A:  I don’t know. He has ALDS.  I don’t know what that is.

Q: How about you, Connor? Do you know why your father is in a wheelchair?

A: I don’t know what it’s called. He used to be on his feet.


"It’s kind of weird," Loren says as he corrals the boys and gets ready to head home. "I don’t have the strength to grip a racket anymore. As my ALS progresses, I kind of accept it. I don’t mourn what I miss. I focus more on what I can do, not what I can’t do. What I can do and what I love to do now is watch our boys play tennis."





Toby_Smith_tennisCOUNTERPUNCHER is an exclusive online series written by Toby Smith, former Albuquerque Journal reporter,  three-time USTA Southwest Media Excellence winner, and past Section Marketing Committee member.


Smith knows the landscape of tennis well, especially here in the Southwest, writing on tennis for more than 40 years. 


To reach Toby, contact him at tobysmith68@gmail.com or505-681-0667      .  


View past Counterpuncher stories HERE