Winter Tennis: The Future of Off-Season Sports?

Girls’ tennis kicked off the year with an amazing season, finishing as the runner-up for the CIF SS Division V, and the boys’ tennis team will start practice this spring. But what about this gap between the two seasons?

The answer: winter tennis.

The goal of this offseason opportunity is to better prepare the players for future tennis seasons and deepen their passion for tennis.

The winter tennis program is comprised of eight students: seven sophomores and one junior.

Max Sondland ‘16 has an independent in tennis this trimester and will be working with the team.

The winter tennis program currently practices every weekday on the upper tennis courts. They are preparing for tournaments, including hosting a tournament for the Ventura County Junior Tennis Association this coming February 21st and 22nd.

Scott Burton, a professional tennis player from Ventura, comes to campus to coach the players. Burton also served as the assistant coach to the girls’ varsity tennis program this fall.

While he was originally a personal coach for Sondland, who had received a winter independent in tennis, Coach Burton agreed to work with the whole team once the winter program was finalized.

In order for this program to be created, there had to be a special set of circumstances, as Thacher rarely, if at all, has an entire team playing an offseason sport.

Acting as Athletic Director, Mr. Fagan requested that the administration approve the program because he believed it was necessary to have another winter option to alleviate the large numbers of players on both the J.V. soccer and J.V. basketball teams. The numbers predicted for winter sports teams were too high, and Mr. Fagan explained that an additional sport would be needed.

This year both girls’ and boys’ J.V. basketball and J.V. soccer teams have 25 to 30 players, respectively. Compared to last year’s numbers, this year’s teams have only a few more people on each team, but these teams are still very large, even for the J.V. level.

Mr. Fagan justified the choice of an offseason program by saying he looked at the predicted numbers of winter sports signups and saw that something had to be done about the high numbers.

“All the winter sports are way overcrowded, and on top of that the horse department is down about eighteen horses, and we were going to need to bump about twelve sophomores off.”

The revelation of the limited number of tennis spots compared to the size of winter teams made many question the perceived need of the tennis program. In addition, unlike typical Thacher sports, there was not an official tryout for the team. The players were individually sought out and privately asked to join. The students must also pay out-of-pocket expenses for coaching in order to participate in the winter tennis program.

Facilities use was another reason tennis was chosen. The gym is used for basketball, while J.V. basketball plays on the lower courts. The soccer players are on the fields, leaving the upper courts empty in the winter.

Mr. Fagan stated that in addition, “we saw some kids that this would actually be meaningful to.”

Others questioned why sports that wouldn’t conflict with the use of the gym or the fields were unable to have offseason teams.

John Carey ‘15 believes independent sports programs would be meaningful to not only tennis players, but others as well.

In the summer preceding their sophomore year, Carey and Marshall Fisher ‘15 petitioned for winter baseball independents, but were dissuaded before they could apply with the response that it was against school policy to allow students to play a sport for an independent that is already formally offered by the school during a different season. They were told that even if they applied it was very unlikely that they would be accepted into the independent program.

“I think this is a great opportunity for these tennis players. That being said, I wish that this ‘loophole’ in the independent system was open to more students. I believe that it is unfair that they were able to do this, and Marshall and I were not [able to receive independents for the sport we wanted to play].”

“One of the reasons I wanted to get an independent in baseball is that I wanted to get recruited. Many of my friends back in SF who I grew up playing with are being recruited.”

Carey also pointed out that in terms of players from other schools being recruited for college, one factor is that athletes can specialize for more than one season.

“An adherence to the policies that have been put in place makes this school what it is. If they are able to change the rules, then all students should be allowed to as well, so in that sense I believe this needs to be addressed in a formal manner, and a rule change should result.”

Carey suggested a remedy by limiting required sports participation to only two seasons in order to to allow students the ability to choose something that interests them personally to pursue during the optional season.

“This would give athletes a better chance to prepare for the sports that they are passionate about, and give them a better chance to play at the next level, while still maintaining the emphasis on sports and outdoor activities that is so important to the integrity of the school.”

Ms. Kara Hooper, head of the independent committee that reviews independent project proposals, commented that Carey’s argument may carry less weight considering applicants to Thacher are fully aware of their limitations in sports.

“If you sign on to go to Thacher, then you probably have a pretty clear sense from the get-go that you’re going to have a different trajectory for athletic recruiting. Let’s start with the fact that you forfeit your entire freshman year in terms of sports because of the horse program. So I understand the frustration, but it surprises me when students talk about it because I think it’s pretty clear when you decide to come to Thacher that your chances for recruitment are different here.”

At the same time, Ms. Hooper pointed out inconsistencies in the sports offerings.

“We are a school that allows students to specialize 11 out of 12 seasons in riding, we allow them to specialize 6 of 12 in rock climbing and dance, and so we have a lot of students who are committed to athletics who would love the chance to do their sport in another season who were surprised by this decision, and it raised a larger question that we as a school wrestle with. As a school, we value doing things out of your comfort zone, which is why we don’t let students just do one sport.”

At the community council meeting on January 19, many of the student leaders voiced their strong opinions on the tennis program’s effect on the community. Ms. Hooper was there in her role as a dorm head and explained that most students were unhappy with a supposed conflict of interest.

“What I heard students say is that they were concerned there was a possible conflict of interest with Mr. Fagan, who coaches tennis and is the athletic director, making the decision to have a winter tennis team.”

Another topic of controversy on campus is the concern that Sondland actually has an independent for tennis this winter, but has melded his situation in with the players in the program.

The independent committee rarely gives out independent projects for a sport that already has a season at Thacher.

Ms. Hooper explained that, “There is a clause in the rulebook that states it, but there is also something that says it is allowed if there are special circumstances.”

This season, the administration and Mr. Fagan have claimed that those special circumstances were the large numbers of players on the J.V. sports teams.

In the past several years there have been several tennis independents granted, which Ms. Hooper attributes to Thacher’s connection to California tennis history.

“The school has a deep connection to tennis, and tennis in the Ojai Valley in general, especially the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, and that’s why they [tennis independents] have been granted in the past.”

Although many students around campus are hoping for more opportunities like this to happen in the future, Mr. Mulligan doesn’t see a future for offseason sports teams.

“There’s only one reason I approved this and that is because Mr. Schryver came to me and said that 18 horses were injured, and then the coaches were telling me that all the teams are overloaded.”

To address this concern, when Mr. Mulligan was approached by Mr. Fagan with a few students and a potential alleviation to the burden on JV coaches, he approved of the offseason team.

A common misconception around campus is that this is the start of a new opportunity for all students to apply for off-season sports teams. Mr. Mulligan wanted to quell these rumors and misconceptions by clarifying that, in his mind while creating the program, he did not expect, and still does not expect, another situation like this one to arise in the future.

Mr. Mulligan also recognized the voices of annoyance from the student body.

“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal because I intended it to be a one time deal. I don’t think it’s fair to other kids, but something needed to be done about the situation.”

He knows that some students were dissatisfied by this decision of letting a sport have an offseason team, but he felt there was no other option given the sizes of the sports teams and the limited horses.

One plan Mr. Mulligan has for the future that would help alleviate the large numbers of players in other sports during the winter season is to move one of the seasons of rock climbing to the winter so that there are more options for students to choose from.

For now, the tennis players are working hard on making the most of their chance to better their skills and become stronger players.

This past weekend, the athletes involved in the winter tennis program traveled to Oxnard and competed in the Oxnard Winter Junior Open. The boys all lost first round matches.

Cara Dienst ’17 won her first two matches, but lost in the quarterfinals. Jasmin Arculli ’17 and Libby Kern ’17 both lost their first matches, while Sydney de Polo ’17 won her first, but fell in the round of 16.

Unfortunately, players could not be reached for official comment on the winter tennis program.

Catch them on the courts later this month at home!