Karen Bernard Heege
By Chris Dummermuth
Vermillion native, Karen Bernard Heege added a deeper dynamic to South Dakota women’s tennis. Excelling in both singles and doubles, this fierce competitor will especially be remembered for her natural finesse, as well as her aggressive, athletic volleys.
Karen was the only tennis player out of nine siblings: Chris, Jim, Ann, Terry, Debbie, Ricky, Philip, Mary, and David. It’s no wonder that Mom, Helen, and Dad, Jerry, were not tennis players, they had their hands full, but Karen does credit her four older brothers who played sports for giving her a competitive edge.
Karen started playing tennis at the age of 13, following her neighborhood friend. Living next to Jolly Elementary School, she spent hours hitting against the wall. The courts by the law school were her other favorite practice haunt. Her first instructor through the Vermillion City Park and Recreation was South Dakota Tennis Hall of Famer Don Barnes. She continued growing with the guidance, coaching, and instruction of Ed Hunstad, while fitting in some lessons from another South Dakota Tennis Hall of Famer, Don Grebin. During her first tournament debut in the 1973 Vermillion City Tournament, Karen won both the 15 and 18 singles in addition to the 18 doubles division.
As a seventh grader, Karen joined the Vermillion High School tennis squad, and it didn’t take her long to write some history. Juggling basketball in addition to her tennis, with both seasons in the fall, she would transition from practice on the basketball court to the middle school tennis courts armed with quarters from Coach Jay Hennies to turn on the lights. By 1974, Karen won flight two singles, and joined partner Beth Krause to capture flight one doubles securing the first ever state championship in girls’ competition for Vermillion. The girls battled it out in Pierre from 7:30 AM until 11:30 PM enduring grueling prairie weather conditions-it actually snowed in Aberdeen that day.
Karen continued her Tanager legacy with partner Karen Kaltsulas dominating flight one doubles with championship wins in ’75 and ’76, and finalist in ’77. Argus sportswriter John Egan referred to the two Karens as the “dynamic duo!” Her high school honors include Most Improved and Most Valuable Player, and she garnered high praise from her coaches Jay Hennies and Darrell Mueller. Coach Mueller commented that Karen was as competitive as any male athlete you’ll ever see in competition, and she represented Vermillion High School in the best possible way with her sportsmanship and winning spirit.
Summer tennis included tournament play throughout South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. In 1975 she was ranked 5th in girls 16 singles, and in 1977 she was 6th in girls 18 singles in the Northwestern Lawn Tennis Association.
As a freshman at the University of South Dakota, this self-proclaimed “doubles specialist” compiled a 26-0 flight two singles record winning the state and regional titles and advancing to the nationals in Denver, Colorado. After two successful seasons as a Jean Jacobson Coyote, in need of a change, Karen transferred to Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Because of instant transfer eligibility, Karen joined the squad and was immediately elected co-captain with teammate Karlee Grebin. One of Karen’s highlights as a Viking was sharing a 6-0, 6-1 assault on Kansas University’s top duo with sophomore partner Maria Bell during the Iowa State Invitational. She also defeated the Jayhawks number one singles player. Coach Sandy Jerstad considered this group one of the best women’s teams that Augie has ever had.
Karen’s success mushroomed after graduation. In her own words she said, “It was very rewarding to finally win against all the players who defeated me in juniors, high school, and college.” She “owned” the South Dakota Closed traveling trophy by capturing three consecutive wins in ’83, ’84, ’85, and again in ’88, ’89, and ’90. Also in the summer of 1990, Karen won the newly initiated Ross Fenn Memorial Cup defeating lifetime rival Nancy Driggs in singles and doubles. Longtime doubles partner, rival, and friend, Chris Dummermuth said, “I love to serve with Karen at the net! Her volleys always made me look good!”
Karen spent court time sharing her talents as well. She taught lessons for the city park and recreation programs, community education, YMCA programs, and a national youth sports camp. For ten years she was the head tennis professional at Westward Ho Country Club in Sioux Falls. In 1983 she coached an undefeated Washington Warrior girls tennis team to a state championship.
Currently, Karen works in sales for Vern Eide Honda. She and her daughter Margaret (12) frequent McKennan Park on bikes when she has free time. Wrestling with some injuries, Karen has been absent from tennis for four seasons. We hope to have her back on court soon!