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Florida "No-Cut" USTA School Tennis Leagues Expand in 2010

May 13, 2010 07:00 PM

 The New Smyrna Beach team


 The River Springs team


 The Silver Sands team

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - May 14, 2010 --
High school and middle school tennis try-outs are held each spring in Florida, but an ever-decreasing number of students are able to participate due to budget cut-backs and program cancellations. Those who don't make the varsity-only teams go to other sports, or simply become inactive.

But high school and middle school students in Volusia County (Daytona Beach area) and Central Florida (Orlando area) are playing tennis, and not just the varsity players -- but students of all abilities, and no one is turned away.

Developed by USTA Florida's Molly Zimmer and Rita Gladstone last year, the Volusia County middle school USTA Jr. Team Tennis league's popularity, boasting 100 participants, has also led to the development Orlando high school JV (junior varsity) no-cut league.

While high schools athletics are getting hit hard by current economic conditions, many counties such as Volusia have completely eliminated middle schools sports due to budget restraints.

"There's no middle school sports at all [in Volusia County]," said the Volusia USTA school league tennis organizer Gladstone. "It's a very important time in these middle school years for kids to have an outlet. This is also bringing in a lot of new kids that might not originally play tennis, but it appeals to them to play for their school. Last year we had a number of football players seeing they could play for their middle school so they were totally into it, we had a lot of kids from other sports."

In the Orlando area the Central Florida High School Conference is a "no-cut program" where junior varsity (JV) students, and kids who might otherwise not even make the JV team, compete against each other in a season that runs concurrently with the varsity tennis season. Six high schools are competing in the pilot program run through USTA Florida Jr. Team Tennis (JTT), which also allowed teams to compete in the USTA Florida Jr. Team Tennis Spring Section Championship, held April 24-25, 2010, in Altamonte Springs.

"One parent that is participating told me that it is an answer to her prayers," says Orlando-area school tennis league organizer Nita Klingenberg. "I insisted that the philosophy of the USTA is to provide the opportunity to all players to be able to play, so I wanted [the Orlando-area program] to be a no-cut program."

Henner Lenhardt is a volunteer with the Orlando-area league program, as well as the head tennis professional at Interlachen Country Club in Winter Park who says the league has taken off since the USTA Florida implementation.

"[The idea] is born from many coaches, parents, and volunteers that through the years have witnessed high school tryouts with 40 players, and only 10 players making the team," Lenhardt says. "In Central Florida we have organized and are determined not to let those players get away from the great sport of tennis. The first season is going great as the kids and parents are appreciative of the effort, the impact on school tennis is going to be amazing.


 League organizer Jim Nelson

"Every sport you can think of has a feeder program into the next level. This is going to feed right into the varsity level programs and into the local facilities. I look for this concept to be sanctioned and spread like wildfire all over the state."

The middle school JV leagues in Volusia County are in compliance with the Florida High School Athletic Association's (FHSAA) bylaws, and public school JV league teams will be able to 'letter' according to the school's criteria and the FHSAA's criteria for lettering in varsity sports.

"When budget cuts took away high school junior varsity programs, many kids lost the opportunity to play for their school," said USTA Florida Team Tennis Coordinator Michelle Willis. "High school varsity tennis can only take five or six players on the team. That leaves a lot of players left out. This JV league is going to open up more play opportunities for students and will also help grow future varsity teams as well. Kids will have more match experience and will be more competitive."

The Jr. Team Tennis format the JV League students play under is co-ed, so each team is comprised of girls and boys from one school, with singles, doubles and mixed doubles played during a match. Many schools have multiple teams in the league due to the "no-cut" policy. The six-week season plays matches during the week or on weekends at school or public tennis facilities.

Last year's launch of the middle school program in Volusia County drawing triple-digit participants was one indicator of the need, according Zimmer, USTA Florida's Tennis Program Coordinator for the Volusia County area.

"It was so exciting to watch their first middle school matches," Zimmer said. "You could feel the excitement of the players. We plan to expand the program by offering it to Flagler County middle schools and private schools as well. New for the 2010 season is that teams are being coached by USPTA-certified tennis professionals, along with 8th grade student captains and co-captains to act as mentors for their teams."

Orlando-area USTA Florida Tennis Program Coordinator Shelly Licorish is also assisting the development of the Central Florida High School Conference, and USTA Florida is planning a no-cut coaches workshop for Florida tennis coaches within the next 12 months.

USTA Florida hopes to expand the "no-cut" JV middle school and high school tennis programs in 2011 to make them available to all public and private high schools in the state that elect to participate.

"Rita [Gladstone] and Molly [Zimmer] have been wholly devoted to getting the JV program up and running," said tennis parent Todd Palmer, who is also the tennis coach at Spruce Creek High School, a state tennis powerhouse. Palmer assisted with formulating the Volusia County program. "They've had to clear a lot of hurdles and jump through many hoops -- with funding, liability, and so on, it's extremely difficult to get the USTA and Florida High School Athletics Association to 'fit together,' but they persevered."

A former top junior high tennis coach, Palmer left to coach at the high school level when he saw the "writing on the wall" regarding the direction of Florida middle school sports.
"We had a top-notch junior high athletic program running county-wide [in Volusia]," Palmer said. "It was a strong feeder program for all sports and more importantly, a strong tool for leverage when trying to keep kids on the right track in school. When they decided to start eliminating middle school sports because everyone else was doing it, I saw the writing on the wall. With the elimination of all sports, we would lose the above-mentioned benefits as well as a sense of family and belonging -- school spirit -- that sports provides. We've seen effects of the elimination of sports on the JV level, and like everything else in education these days, once something is lost it's gone for good -- unless people like Molly and Rita step up to the plate."

The 2010 Volusia County middle school league wrapped in early May, with Silver Sands Middle School from Port Orange, Fla., taking the title, and River Springs Middle School from Orange City, Fla., finishing runner-up.

Click here to visit the USTA Florida School Tennis website. Parents, high school coaches or athletic directors interested in participating in the 2011 season can contact Michelle Willis at willis@florida.usta.com.






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