San Antonio pushing junior racquetball, future of the sport
It’s not a secret Texas is one of the hot spots for racquetball in the U.S., producing about 40 tournaments and garnering more sanctioned USA Racquetball members than any other state.
Bolstered by major markets in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, the sport remains strong in the Lone Star State.
Coach Sandy Long has been major contributor in the junior racquetball program, helping hundreds of kids over the years choose racquetball as their sport. In recent years, however, Thomas Evans and an enormous group of supporters, including George Bustos, in San Antonio have risen to the occasion in growing the youth movement.
“In 1978 while in college after recovering from a very bad illness my best friend introduced me to racquetball,” Evans said. “I fell in love with the game immediately. At the time there were no clinics or people teaching racquetball locally so I watched people play and I adapted my game based on what I saw the most.
“I love the interaction with the other players and how intense the play can get on court. The thing I love the most though is that I have the ability to help kids to become good racquetball competitors and good people. My ability to connect with kids allows me to not only pass on my racquetball knowledge to them but be a good role model to the kids.”
Bustos, who is one of the top players, teachers and sportsmen in Texas, started playing in college and said, “I have been hooked every since.”
“I really enjoy the racquetball community as a whole,” Bustos said. “I have met some incredible people throughout my years playing, as well as during my travels. I also love the demands you must place on yourself to be successful; from cross training, speed/agility, strength, balance and overall fitness to nutrition, education, court composure, etc. I also love the way it shows your true character by the way you carry yourself on the court. I have certainly been disappointed with myself a time or two. But it definitely builds character.”
Bustos said two of his students — Shane Diaz and Brennen Jennings — say it best.
“I enjoy everything about racquetball, but what I enjoy the most is competing,” said Diaz, who recently won the women’s A division at the Longhorn Open in January. “Competing has made me realize that the game itself doesn’t build character, but reveals it. It reminds me to always respect my opponent, even through tough games. And to always stay humble when victory approaches.”
Jennings said he loves the challenges racquetball presents.
“The sport of racquetball presents its participants with a wide variety of both mental and physical challenges,” Jennings said. “These challenges are what I enjoy the most, as they require the individual to be self-accountable, adaptable and consistent on a daily basis.”
Although racquetball is where Evans has focused his efforts, he said he sees a greater need in society as a whole.
“I see a need in our society to foster and guide kids,” Evans said. “Too often I have seen kids go ignored and undisciplined in their lives. I recognize that I have a gift in dealing with young people and I feel I would be remiss in not using my God given talent if I did not offer myself to teach the juniors.
“When I teach racquetball I also try to give the juniors my insights into how to be a good citizen and to control your emotions and not get angry or out of control. Junior players are like sponges, when you have their attention you can teach them the world. I love that about junior players. The true reward for me in teaching the juniors is to see the juniors get on the court with their parents and play. I see that as the highlight of their young racquetball careers.”
Improving junior racquetball across Texas is not a simple plan. It’s going to take effort, but Evans has several thoughts on the topic.
“First, we need more established players to step up to make time to take a young player under their wing and train them,” he said. “Second, we need a local, state and national program to reach out to the low income families and the families of kids that do not fit the mold of other sports to get involved in racquetball.
“This program needs to offer a way for families to afford club memberships so they can take advantage of the racquetball programs. Third, for group lessons there needs to be a push to entice more players to give their time to teach. This is not a criticism but I have only seen one program that actively promotes racquetball and that is the Alamo City Racquetball Association of San Antonio. The Texas Racquetball Association provides financial assistance to junior participants to attend the junior nationals, however this is not enough.”
Focusing on juniors
To grow the sport, Bustos said there’s only one thing to think about.
“Without a doubt, I believe the key is having a solid junior program,” he said. “After all, they are the future of the sport. Some parts of the country have high school racquetball, which I think is fantastic. Even if juniors want to play other sports, racquetball is a great complimentary sport due to its fast-paced play, demands on fitness levels, speed, agility, etc.”
Evans gave kudos to the parents.
“I would say that the parents have been the biggest supporters of the program,” Evans said. “I actively try to recruit kids and parents for the program. I constantly am talking to parents and kids. The players at our club have been extremely supportive of the program. Some will step in to teach for me when I am unable, a lot of players have donated equipment to the program that has come in extremely handy. I reward some junior players with equipment when they have come to a certain number of lessons.
“I have loaner equipment to handout to families that are just wanting to try out racquetball for the first time. Some of the players at our club will go on the court with some of my kids and show them a thing or two, the kids love the attention and help.”
Several San Antonio club players weighed in on the youth movement.
Sponsor Sandy Rios: "Somehow we need to do a better job of getting kids exposed/interested in racquetball. With the huge pull of club teams for youth in baseball, football, soccer, basketball it is very difficult to introduce juniors to the game. Unless there is a family member who also plays, today’s youth don’t even know the game exists. With chain fitness centers banning children under the age of 13 or so from the premises by the time they even see a court, they have already been indoctrinated to, in a lot of cases, their parents’ chosen sport. Somehow we need to be able to get to children in elementary and junior high. I know of a program in the Northwest where they actually approach the coaches and ask them about the kids they have on the team who will never be a starter. The ones with athletic ability, coachability and desire to play, but who will never have the skills to be the best in that sport. They then introduce them to racquetball and have had great success with producing winners. Our future lies in the youth."
Sponsor Brent Poss: "I think the essence of racquetball, whether it’s being played by adults or juniors, is fun. Think back to the time when you first started playing … it was such a joy discovering the excitement and challenge of the sport. It wasn’t even exercise. It was pure elation … a truly wonderful game. I think that’s the key to growing and introducing the sport to the youth of today. Keep it fun. Clinics with games, tournaments and meet and greet-type functions with high skill-level players. Make it fun. Make it exciting. What kid wants to play a game that isn’t fun? "
Splathead Racquetball Owner Joe Hall: "I think the answer is in the schools, starting in elementary. Missouri and Oregon seem very successful using this method of cultivating the kids in school at an early age, to play racquetball. In elementary and middle school, develop racquetball clubs, just like chess and drama clubs. In high school, make it a club level or varsity level sport like they do with tennis and soccer. When Missouri can get 500 high school players at their state high school tournament, you know they are on to a great idea."
Coach Sandy Long: "Thomas Evans is the one who is putting in six days a week at the club doing free one hour clinics twice a week. The rest of the time is spent on private lessons. George is handling the more dedicated students and he does private lessons. Thomas has between 12-20 students most of which are just there having fun while their parents work out."
Bustos said he’s been involved in junior racquetball for about a year and gives most of the credit to Evans.
“Most of the credit for the development and momentum of our local youth program goes to Thomas Evans,” Bustos said. “He has a passion for both the juniors and teaching them the game. His Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday junior clinics often have 15 or so participants. With the help of Brennen Jennings and Shane Diaz, Thomas has really increased the junior program interest.
“He is the main reason why I have decided to get involved. However, a lot of credit also goes to Stanley Golob, Rick Mogren, Jesse Baza, Carlos Farias and others for their roles in the junior program over the years. We are also very appreciative to the Thousand Oaks YMCA in San Antonio. They have been very supportive to the Alamo City Racquetball Association by allowing us to run tournaments, clinics and leagues at the facilities. We are both nonprofit entities who have common goals. Since we are set up as an independent contractor, some of our proceeds go directly to them. It’s truly a great relationship and we feel very fortunate to have their support.”
Bustos said there are many others who have been instrumental in junior racquetball in San Antonio, including Lance Gilliam, who founded the ACRA.
“Lance has always been a great ambassador of the game, as well as an outstanding and accomplished player. He still remains on the board today. We had a vision of creating a legitimate nonprofit organization so that we could seek funding for tournaments and more importantly, junior programs.
“With the help of CPA and local racquetball player and enthusiast, Eric Beeson, we have created a 501(c)3 nonprofit entity. Eric is the current treasurer and I believe we are the only independent organization who operates in this manner.”
Others who Bustos said play key roles in the ACRA and in supporting junior racquetball are Mike Cantu, Miguel Escobedo, Sam Hojat, Bill Hall, James Aguirre, Fred Nichols, Dr. Luis Torres, Gail Gabrysh, George Weller, Abel Perez and Crystal Benavides.
“These folks have sponsored, donated, run tournaments and/or clinics, etc., here in San Antonio,” Bustos said. “We are truly a team, and we all care about the health of San Antonio racquetball. Splathead has been one of our biggest and most important sponsors and we sincerely appreciate everything Splathead has done to San Antonio and racquetball in general.”
Right now, Bustos said about 10-15 junior players participate in San Antonio clinics.
“We have some very talented players here in San Antonio,” he said. “Many of them are constantly training and striving to improve their games. Some up-and-coming players to watch out for include Jennings, AJ Fernandez, Raul Valadez and Tyler Panozzo.
“Some male juniors to watch out for are Leo Segura, DJ Mendoza, Yazid Escobedo and Jossue Diaz. The Weller boys from Austin — Ian, Aiden and Karsten — come to San Antonio about two to three times a month to train with me, Thomas, Brennen and Shane. And our female juniors include Diaz and her little sister Rebecca, who is only 6 years old.”
What can the TXRA do grow junior racquetball?
“We need organized competition in the school system,” Evans said. “We need to get involved in the UIL of the public school system or at the very least introduce racquetball to the school system as a club sport with competition between schools. We need to have delegations approach the clubs to encourage them to not take out racquetball courts or to add courts to their facilities.
“Our state organization needs to make a push to encourage more players to offer their time to promote and teach juniors. At tournaments there has to be a push for parents to bring and enter their kids in tournament, be it sending invitations to the parents, giving breaks in family entry fees, offering activities for the kids on Saturday night to entertain and add extra fun not just racquetball, highlight the junior division play so other kids not participating might get interested. Have short training camps during the tournament for juniors.
“Racquetball will only survive and grow if we adult players invest even a small amount of our time and talent towards a potential junior player. Not everyone can teach a kid, however, you can encourage the juniors and steer them to someone that can teach. I see too many players as selfish with their talents. I understand that not everyone can be as involved with the juniors as I am, however your game will not suffer too much if you offer a few minutes and a few points to a junior sponge. Juniors soak up the tips and attention we give them.”
ACRA President Mike Cantu added his thoughts on the future of junior racquetball in Texas.
“I think the TXRA should look into starting a high school program here in Texas,” Cantu said. “This is where some juniors lose interest due to the fact that they cannot represent their school. They choose to play other sports and end up losing interest in racquetball.
“With the exception of LA Fitness, we are losing clubs and courts all across our state. It seems like every year, I hear and witness clubs closing courts or repurposing the space for other activities. Since we can’t use LA Fitness for tournaments, we are slowly losing the ability to hold major tournaments in Texas. TXRA needs to raise money and find those facilities like the YMCA Thousand Oaks that are willing to build courts if the money was provided.”
Editor's Note: Mark your calendar for the Texas State Juniors Racquetball Championships 6/02/18 - 6/03/18