Seven high school students were taking turns hitting tennis balls being fired at them by a machine.
The simple act of returning the ball over the net generated enthusiasm, even the moon shots high enough to make the windscreens along the fences utterly useless. And a fair number of balls were not returned successfully.
So it’s not Flushing Meadows, home of the U.S. Open. But everyone seems to be having fun and, after all, you have to start somewhere. In this case, what is starting is Pahrump Valley High School’s varsity tennis team.
The newest group of Trojans was a small one — six girls and Justin Jetty at Thursday’s practice on the school’s tennis courts. The small turnout, three fewer than were there just days earlier, was something of a mystery to sophomore Veronica Dela Rosa.
“I played for the tennis club last year, and we had a lot of people,” she said. “I don’t know where they all went. Probably died or something.”
Mysterious deaths aside, numbers are not a huge concern, at least not yet. As a new program, Pahrump Valley will not play in the Class 3A Southern League but instead has compiled an independent schedule. Nevertheless, Trojans tennis coach David Yost would like to see a few more kids on the courts.
“We had 31 sign up, but we only had so many actually show up,” Yost said. “It just may be too hot for them, I don’t know. It’s going to take a while to build up the program.
“But this group here is a good group. These kids want to learn. They are hungry. Everything I tell them, they eat it up.”
Yost has been playing tennis since he was an 8-year-old pretending his Bermuda grass lawn in Alabama was Wimbledon. But he has a couple of other qualifications, one being that he has started a tennis program before.
“I built a program at a school in China from scratch, just like we’re trying to do here,” said Yost, who spent four years in Asia. “It’s a challenge. Just to try and get the kids out there first, that’s the hardest part. Once you get the kids out there, and some other kids say, ‘Hey, they’re having fun doing it,’ you’ll start getting more and more pop out here.”
Another qualification, albeit somewhat less significant, is his personal experience, specifically the first time he competed in the sport.
“I can tell you the first match I ever played was when I was about 16, and we played an older doubles team,” Yost recalled. “Me and my friend, we thought we were pretty good. And we got smacked, 6-0, 6-0, by two guys who were probably in their late 60s. We were like, we’re 16 years old, in the prime of our lives, and we just got smoked by 68- or 69-year old guys? Wow, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
It’s the kind of loss a new team might expect to endure during the embryonic stages of the program. Expectations have to be low.
“Match-wise, I don’t know, but I think we can win some sets,” Yost said. “It’s just a matter of getting these kids out here practicing and getting them going.
“Since we’re going to be a little short (on depth), I’ll talk to the other teams and say, ‘Can we play a couple of these girls in doubles and singles matches?’ Some of them are going to be super tired at the end, but it will give them a lot of experience, and that’s what we need.”
Most of the Trojans’ opponents this year are schools in the Class 3A Southern League they eventually will join.
“I actually looked up the teams we’re going against and the first one is like, Bandanza,” Dela Rosa said after practice. Told the opponent is Bonanza, she was unfazed. “Whatever. I called them Banana the other day. Anyway, their team won half of their matches, so we have a 50-50 chance for girls. For guys? We’ve got Justin.
“I could say I’m a guy, but I don’t think that would work.”
Dela Rosa is one of the few players who has spent any competitive time on a tennis court. Her father does some coaching on the side — and supplied the ball machine they were using at practice. But she readily admits Pahrump is not a town in which a lot of kids grow up playing tennis.
“I’m guessing not,” she said as she tried to remember where courts are in town. “A bunch of kids, when I’d tell them I’m in tennis, they would say, ‘Oh I played tennis a long time ago.’ So then it’s, ‘Why aren’t you on the tennis team?’ And it would be like, ‘Oh I’m in football, or any other sport, because tennis is lame.’”
“Veronica is probably the only one,” Yost said of his experienced players. “She was in the club last year, and I think Justin was too, and Summit (Gilman).”
Gilman is an example of how far the nascent team must go, and how far it already has come.
“I’ve watched this one right here, Summit, and she’s gone from, ‘Oh my god, I’m scared to hit a ball,’ to actually hitting the ball,” Yost said.
One small step for a tennis player …
A very small step, perhaps, but again, you have to start somewhere. And Yost noted that, as a new team whose matches will not count in anybody’s league standings, the fledgling Trojans are unlikely to get everyone’s best shot.
“You don’t want to take a chance on sending somebody out there against a school that is just beginning and get your star player hurt,” he explained. “I wouldn’t want to do that.”
Throw in the fact that many opposing players, even those who are backups or junior varsity players, are likely to take the Trojans lightly, and Yost’s belief that they can win sets, if not matches, starts to make sense.
“You can practice all day long, but until you actually step on the court in competition, you don’t know what to expect,” Yost said. “The kid you go out there to play might be terrible or might be having an off day.”
So as the Trojans prepare for Thursday’s opening match against Bonanza, Bandanza, Banana, or whoever shows up on Pahrump Valley’s home courts at 3 p.m., expectations are minimal except for one: Learn and get better. For Yost, that means starting with the basics, including learning to hit a solid forehand and proper footwork.
“One thing I learned about tennis, it’s not all about athleticism,” Yost said. “If you can out-think your opponent, you don’t have to be a superstar. You can watch what they like to do, figure out what their weak spot is and go toward that side every time. Make them make the unforced error.”
And along the way make tennis a little less “lame” for future Trojans.
Contact Sports Editor Tom Rysinski at email@example.com On Twitter:@pvtimes