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Florida M.S. Pilot Program Provides School Tennis Alternative

March 23, 2012 09:10 AM
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More than 100 students are participating in a USTA Jr. Team Tennis/St. Johns County Middle School pilot tennis program launched this winter in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and the surrounding St. Johns County area, where sports are no longer funded by the school county.

"Landrum Middle School in Ponte Vedra had 70 prospective team members arrive, racquets in hand, ready to go," said Jacksonville-area USTA Florida Jr. Team Tennis Coordinator Diana Gardner. "We were overwhelmed by the interest which illustrates the need to bring tennis to this middle school demographic."

The league is in partnership with the St. Johns Middle School Athletic Association (SJMSAA) and the school's sports directors. The SJMSAA is an independent organization that organizes school sports for St. Johns County following the county switching to a "pay to participate" sports program.

"I contacted the president of SJMSAA, Keith Martin, and proposed a tennis program," said Darla Neal, a parent-captain of one of the teams who did the majority of the program organizing and serves as "tennis commissioner" on the SJMSAA board. "Diana and I worked together to recruit volunteers, tennis professionals and donated court time. The kids have clinics once a week and matches every Thursday. The season will run through mid-May and will conclude in a seeded playoff. We have ordered a traveling trophy to recognize the winning team."

Eleven teams are participating from eight public middle schools, with matches at five different public park and private/semi-private club facilities. The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, while not participating this year, plans on participating in future seasons. More than 235 players came to tryouts at five locations.

"The St. Johns Middle School Athletic Association offers a model which can be easily duplicated in other areas of Florida as dollars become less available for school sports," Gardner said. "Their structure offers a clear path to reach the students -- the website is comprehensive, and the fee collection process is established. And I cannot say enough about the wonderful work Darla Neal has done to initiate this program, contacting sites, making arrangements for the tennis professionals, creating a committee, raising student scholarship donations, and communicating with the SJMSAA and the school sports directors."

USTA Jr. Team Tennis middle school leagues have also been organized in Volusia County and other Florida counties where school officials are working hand-in-hand with USTA Florida staff and Jr. Team Tennis organizers.

"With the right infrastructure, organization and leadership by those involved, this model can provide amazing results," said USTA Florida Associate Executive Director Andy McFarland. "With the success of middle school tennis in the Jacksonville area, we should be looking to have some record-setting participation numbers coming down the pipe in a few years."

USTA Jr. Team Tennis brings kids together in co-ed teams to play singles, doubles and mixed doubles against other teams. It promotes social skills and important values by fostering a spirit of cooperation and unity, as well as individual self-growth. For more information go to www.florida.usta.com/youth_tennis/jr_team_tennis/home.

For more information on the USTA Jr. Team Tennis/St. Johns County Middle School pilot tennis program, contact Diana Gardner at jrtennisjax@yahoo.com.






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