USA Racquetball Junior National Team 2017

XXIX 2017 Junior World Racquetball Championship Blogs – Day 10

Day 10 of the USA Racquetball XXIX 2017 Junior World Racquetball Championship Blogs has been published by Cheryl Kirk.

Originally published on November 13, 2017.


US Junior Team — Blog #10
Monday, November 13, 2017

Well, at the beginning, I predicted nine blogs (10 if you were lucky). Your fondest wish has come true! For those of you feeling the pangs of withdrawal and a certain melancholy after so many days of marathon blog reading, here’s #10! Coaches Charlie and Jen offer stirring comments to cap off a great week in Minneapolis!

The final day of World Juniors featured seven gold medal matches for team USA. It started off at 9:00 am with Sonya Shetty winning the 10 & Under singles in two games! Word of Sonya’s gold medal spread like wildfire throughout our Whatsapp group text. Congratulations, Sonya!

You could feel the excitement and energy in the group as we sat down to watch Heather Mahoney play her 12 & Under singles final on the main court. At Junior Nationals in Stockton, Heather placed 1st in 12 & Under singles, 2nd in 14 & Under singles, and 1st in 14 & Under doubles with partner Julia Stein. Heather had to decide which two divisions she wanted to play at Worlds, and she elected to play 14 doubles and 12 singles, a smart move in our opinion. It also put her in a unique position of being on both the Esprit and World Cup teams, bridging the gap between the two. Heather attended the World Cup training camp in Colorado Springs in August. As we all got to know Heather, our excitement for her chances in 12 & Under singles grew strong. She really helped us realize how important it is to support the Esprit team as well.

Heather is an absolute warrior! In all my years of playing racquetball, I’m not sure I have ever seen someone as young as her give so much in every point. Even at the training camp, she was one of the fittest and hardest workers, battling sore muscles, blisters, bruises, and more. Heather will probably set the record for most hours spent with our trainer Jody by the time she finishes juniors. The same was true for Junior Worlds. The coaches got word that Heather was having issues with her hip a couple weeks before the event. Not the best start, and a bit concerning. We kept a close eye on Heather, making sure she was healthy enough to play. Although she let us know of her injuries, she showed no signs of slowing down. In the entire tournament, I would not be surprised if she dove 100+ times — more than all the other team players combined. Every match she came away with a new bruise or blister! Heather is an incredible athlete. For her, this tournament was about fighting through the pain each day. She played lights out in her finals match, winning in two games. The crowd was there in full swing, including almost the entire World Cup team. And yes, she dove at least 10 times in that match!

The next gold medal match was Akul vs Mexico’s #1 player. Akul is perhaps the most talented player I have ever seen at his age. At Junior Nationals, Akul won the 14 & Under singles, 14 & Under doubles with Antonio Rojas, and 16 & Under singles. The only person I can remember doing something like that is Jack Huczek, the greatest junior player of all time. Akul’s matches this week were unreal. He won his quarterfinal in an 11-9 tiebreaker, then his semifinal 11-10. It was absolutely exhausting watching those two matches, and as his coach, I wasn’t sure I could go through another. At the meeting the night before, coach Bobby told Akul to “stop playing with your food before you eat it.”  A great example of Bobby’s coaching style and overall personality. Akul took that to heart and played his best ball of the tournament, winning in two games. Such a proud moment for the team. Our first World Cup gold medal!

As many of you may know, USA Racquetball took a different approach to the coaching this year, allowing parents and private coaches who passed all the requirements to coach players alongside the USA Coaching staff. Among the private coaches was none other than Jim Winterton, a legend in our sport. Jim coaches Akul, and I was honored to be alongside him in multiple matches. These included the 11-9 and 11-10 wins earlier. We were both thrilled to capture the victory. At the same time, we couldn’t help but think how close we were to not seeing it happen — the difference between one or two shots. Even in Akul’s semifinal, Akul hit a splat shot from 39 feet about an inch high for a rollout to get back in the box. Truly a game is inches, if not millimeters. We were both so grateful. When Akul came out of the court, he tracked down coach Bobby and said, “I didn’t play with my food this time!”

After Akul’s match was the Boys 12 doubles featuring Vedant Chauhan and Josh Shea vs. a very tough Mexican team. If there is one thing I am most excited about, it is the future of this US Team. We have some very talented players coming up the ranks in the 12’s and 10’s. Josh Shea lost his semifinal 11-9 to the winner of the division, and Vedant lost his singles to the other finalist in a tiebreaker. Nikhil Prasad also lost 11-10 to the defending world champion in the quarterfinals. Although it was a slightly disappointing finish to some of the singles matches, Team USA proved they are right there with everyone else. One or two shots were the difference in some of the matches. Josh and Vedant won their first game in the doubles final and were up in the second thanks to amazing play from Vedant. Mexico came back with a vengeance and took the second game to force a tiebreaker. Mexico’s strategy continued to work as they won the tiebreaker 11-5. A great run for Vedant and Josh and nothing to be disappointed about. Silver medal earned, and hopefully some motivation for their future. If they continue to train hard, I have no doubt they will soon be champions in singles and doubles. The future is bright!

Speaking of a bright future, Heather Mahoney and Julia Stein were up next in their final round robin match of the tournament. They played Canada, and the winner would receive a bronze medal. Heather and Julia played better every match of the tournament after a tough start in their round robin. The Canada team fought hard but were no match for the power of Julia and speed of Heather. USA won in two games to earn the bronze! I absolutely love the matchup of Julia and Heather: speed, power, fearlessness, and youth. Heather is still in 12s, and Julia in her bottom year of 14s. This is exciting for us as coaches: a bronze medal with another year in the division. Their nickname is now the Dream Team!

The day began to get busy with three USA matches at the same time. Our boys 14 & Under doubles featuring Akul and Antonio vs. Mexico gold medal match, then Daniel Rojas in his 18 &  Under final match, and the girls 16 & Under were playing for a silver against Mexico. As a coach, it was killing me not to be at everyone’s match. I sat down with the Girls 16 against Mexico. Mexico was a tough team and won in two games, but a bronze medal for our 16 doubles team is a great finish, and I am super proud of Graci and Briana, especially considering it is their down year and first time playing together. It was an honor to coach them this week.

I was happy to find out that Akul and Tatoe won their final in two games. It wasn’t easy, but on paper it was a dominating performance by our 14 Boys all week, never dropping a game. About a month before Worlds, Tatoe flew out to New York from California to practice with Akul — a special thanks to Reaching Your Dream Foundation for helping Tatoe with his flight. It was a long trip for young Tatoe and his first on his own. He was even a bit nervous a few days before the trip and said he might not go but found the courage to make the trip anyway. He and Akul spent six straight days practicing together, which proved to be the difference in doubles and certainly helped in singles. After Akul’s 11-9 and 11-10 victories, it’s hard to argue that the practice wasn’t crucial. I’m so proud of these boys. They show tremendous class, courage, and maturity for their age. Congratulations to Akul for his double gold, and to Tatoe for his first gold!

After the Girls 16 doubles and Boys 14 doubles, everyone piled in for Daniel’s 18 singles final. Daniel has never won gold at Worlds. It is his last year, and we wanted nothing more than to see his dream come true. Daniel continued to impress us all as the week went on. We all knew that he had everything it takes to win a title, but could he bring it all together for an entire tournament? I had no doubt that he was the best player there, but it’s not necessarily the best who wins, it is the one who can play well every game and every match. Daniel fought off two tiebreakers in the round of 16 and quarterfinal. His semifinal was against Mexico’s #1 player (who was the #1 seed in the tournament. Most people expected Daniel to stop there, but not this team, and certainly not Daniel. He won in two game — a huge victory for him, described by people who know him well as ‘the best he has ever played.’ He took that momentum into the finals, winning the first game 15-6. He was off to a great start in the second, 6-0, but I knew that his opponent, Eduardo Portillo from Mexico, was not going down without a fight. Eduardo battled back and they went point for point all the way to the end. Eduardo took a 14-12 lead and had multiple game points. Daniel stayed tough every point, a true testament to his mental strength and heart. He changed his serve at 13-14 to a simple lob to the backhand, which Portillo slammed into the ground. Daniel went back to the same serve at 14 all, got a ceiling ball set-up and buried it into the right corner for the victory! After a few leaps into the air, Daniel collapsed on the court (in a good way of course). His father and coaches rushed in and gave him big hugs. What an amazing moment! We could not be more proud of his victory, his performance, and the way he finished his junior career. But most of all, and we all agree on this, we are most proud of who Daniel has become. He is quite possibly the most humble and respectful champion this game has ever seen. Jody Nance made the statement that if they gave a sportsmanship award, Daniel would receive it. Daniel represents everything that is good in this sport and this team. As head coach, all I ask is that my players carry themselves respectfully. Above your performance, have respect for your opponents and the game. It means more than anything, and it is what people will remember you for. Daniel will not only be remembered for being a champion, he will be known for who he is. I am unbelievably honored to have had him on my team, even for just a year. What a year it was. Congratulations, Daniel! And thank you!

The nightcap was the Girls 18 doubles of our other team captain, Hollie Scott and partner Megan Carver. This team was in a double round robin, so they played each of the other teams twice. They first lost to Ecuador in a tiebreaker, then lost to Mexico in two games. They had a couple days off, then played Ecuador again, this time winning in two games which put them back in the second place position behind Mexico. They played Mexico directly after Daniel’s match. At that point, Mexico had already sealed first place in that division, and USA had sealed second. So no matter the outcome, the results would stay the same. That knowledge did not stop our girls from playing their hardest and their best. We were packed in on the show court bleachers, live streaming, cowbells, clappers — the energy was high! Mexico jumped out to an early lead, then Megan Carver hit a not-so-great lob serve to the forehand side, which the girl skipped into the floor. Coach Bobby looked at us like ‘that was interesting.’ Megan served another not-so-good lob, same result, big skip. The game was starting to get closer and the coaches looked at each other and said ‘we can win this match.’ A few points later we called a timeout, and Coach Bobby said to Megan and Hollie, ‘I know this sounds nuts, but I want you to serve really bad lobs to the forehand.’ The girls laughed, but Bobby assured them that he was serious. We started to sense a buzz in the crowd, a different energy. It was the last match, and the result didn’t matter for the division or the team title, but we were there and we wanted to get a W! The match turned into a battle, going point for point and taking the first game 15-14! It was on! The crowd was into it, the players believed, and the coaches were having the most fun we’d had all week, mostly because there was zero pressure on the line, only our pride. The second game continued to be a battle. We cannot say enough about Megan Carver. Megan is actually in her bottom year of 16’s. She was in the court playing against the World Champion Monserrat Mejia, streamed live, huge crown, battling for every point and listening to everything the coaches were saying. She is a tremendous athlete. Our team went into the I-formation, with Hollie receiving all the serves. This was also the case at Junior Nationals. But this was not your normal I-formation. Usually an I-formation means one player is frustrated with the other. Not the case here. Hollie is just a more solid serve returner on both sides. But Megan is actually the faster player, making some amazing plays up front, hitting great shots on both sides. USA went down 13-9 and took a timeout. They refocused, got the serve back, got a few points, then Mexico got the serve again. We sided out again and scored the remaining points to win 15-13, taking the match. What a way to end it! Congratulations to Hollie and Megan for an absolutely outstanding match, tournament, and overall year. So honored to have them on our team.
Saturday went down as perhaps one of the most successful final days the USA has ever seen. With the exception of a few losses, we absolutely dominated the competition.

What a way to end an already amazing tournament! Mexico and Bolivia proved themselves better in the overall team competition — hats off to them. Both countries are extremely impressive in all divisions. I was on the very first team to lose a World Championship to Mexico. We never got it back while I was on the team. It hurt a lot, especially at the time. I thought perhaps it was something we were doing wrong. In reality, the other teams just got better. They had to if they wanted the title. This was also the case this year. We are a great team, but Mexico and Bolivia are just better. I can live with that as coach. What I am most proud about is how our team carries itself and how close they have become over the last few months. Play hard, have fun, be respectful, be humble. They are, and they will continue to be. We took 3rd overall, we had some tough losses, we were not the better team. But on Saturday, the final day, on our home turf, it was our day. We finished the day with perhaps the most thunderous USA chant that racquetball has ever seen. All 40+ players and 50+ parents gathered together in the gym after the closing ceremonies and shook the building. It gave me chills.

I cannot thank the parents, kids, coaches, IRF, and USA Racquetball enough for everything. It was truly a special week. There was something in the air. The excitement of our home country, the community, the racquetball family. In all my years on the team I never felt anything like that. It’s hard to describe unless you were there, just an overall unity.

Thank you everyone for this amazing experience. I am one lucky coach. I told the team, ‘I might have many teams in my years, but I will only have one first team. One first Worlds. And this was it. I will remember this forever.’

See you all in Iowa for Junior Nationals next June. Go USA!!

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