When many people think of Nancy Casson, they think of her many community service contributions as well as her work with Chair-ries Jubilee, the Bradley County Board of Education and ownership of …
When many people think of Nancy Casson, they think of her many community service contributions as well as her work with Chair-ries Jubilee, the Bradley County Board of Education and ownership of The Red Ribbon gift shop.
Discovering she brought home McMinn County High School’s first state championship trophy was like finding hidden treasure in a woman who has proven herself a jewel in Cleveland.
Casson and her partner, Pat Christopher Grayson, were part of the first women’s tennis team formed at McMinn County High School in 1964 under coach Georgia Hargis. The duo were incredible tennis tacticians who combined speed and agility with a determination to win.
“I started playing tennis when I was about 6 years old,” Casson said. “I grew up in Athens. I was two blocks from City Park Elementary School, which had three concrete tennis courts. So every morning when I went out the front door, I’d go with my tennis racket and hit balls with anybody. I enjoyed it because it’s an individual sport. I could do my own thing. It’s great exercise.”
According to Casson, it was in her junior year in high school in 1964, when she and a group of students pushed for a high school tennis team.
“Several of us played what we called ‘Sandlot tennis,’” Casson said. “We decided we wanted to have a tennis team at our school. Our biology teacher said, ‘Well, I’ll be your coach, but I don’t know anything about tennis.’ So we started playing in the Knoxville Interscholastic League.
“The first year we didn’t do anything real exciting. But that second year — Pat and I won the district doubles, the regional doubles and we came in first in the state doubles. Our team of six came in second in the state.”
Casson and Grayson shocked everyone with a 9-0 record in 1965 before losing to Patsy Hess and Gloria Ray of Knoxville Fulton High School in the KIL regional finals. Their winning record, however, had earned them a bid to the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association State Tournament in Nashville.
This time the tennis tacticians proved unstoppable. Casson and Grayson met Hess and Ray again in the finals and avenged their loss, defeating the Fulton duo in straight sets, 7-5, 6-1 to bring home McMinn County High School’s first state championship trophy. Their team finished second in the tournament. It was a moment of which Casson remembers and is still proud.
She said, “My very best friend, Pat Grayson, and I won the TSSAA State tournament in 1965. Nobody in McMinn up until that time had ever brought back a state trophy. I don’t know whether it was because we were women or because it was tennis — but it kind of got overlooked. Then last year we received an invitation to be inducted into the McMinn County High Sports Hall of Fame.”
Awaiting Casson and Grayson at the 2016 Hall of Fame event would be one more surprise.
Casson explained, “Pat and I were there at the high school that night, trying to find our big trophy we brought back from the state. We looked and we looked and we looked and I finally saw it. It had second place on it. It didn’t say State Champions. I called Mr. Haney and said, ‘This was the trophy we won for winning FIRST place in the state tournament, but it says second place!’ He said, ‘Nancy, that’s probably why we never knew. They were supposed to correct that, but Pat and I had individual trophies that said ‘State Champion,’ so we donated them to the high school that night. So now they have our individual trophies that say State Champion.”
Casson stayed active in tennis at Tennessee Wesleyan College and continued to play competitive tennis as a USTA and Chattanooga Racquet Club member. Casson also served on the committee to form the Athens Tennis Association.
“Later on I worked at Athens Parks and Recreation and taught tennis in the summer. I coached a tennis youth team. I was totally involved. I hate that I cannot get out on court anymore,” Casson admits. “Being raised playing on concrete courts — because that’s what we had growing up — I finally went to playing on clay in my 40s, but my knees just gave out after all that playing. I still love tennis and I’m watching it on television. On my car, my license plate says ‘Tennis nut.’ So, I’m still very much involved in tennis — as much as I can be without playing it.”
Casson said her all-time favorite female tennis player is former world No. 1 Billie Jean King, because of what she was able to accomplish on and off the court for women’s tennis and women’s rights. Her current and all-time favorite male tennis player is 18-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer for being, she says, “such an awesome, awesome player, and showing so much class.”
Her favorite active female player is Serena Williams, who she believes will break the all-time record for most Grand Slam titles by a female.
It is not the titles or the talent, however, that made Casson fall in love with tennis at such an early age. Finding joy in a sport that help youths improve mentally, physically and emotionally year after year for the rest of their lives is one of many reasons Casson said she loves tennis.
Being an individual and group sport, tennis is also the perfect activity to improve social skills, cardiovascular fitness, muscle development, tactical-brain development, body coordination and self-esteem, Casson said.
Casson, who also played basketball and was on the bowling team at McMinn, said it’s never too late to learn tennis.
Playing the sport not only brought her the glory of bringing McMinn County High School its first-ever state championship trophy, it also brought her the thrill of victory and the love of a game that will last her a lifetime.
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