2017-08-18 / Sports

Badminton for one and all

The second most popular sport in the world hasn’t taken off in Acorn country, but maybe it should
Jonathan Andrade

HERE, BIRDIE, BIRDIE—Sabrina Sysavath of Camarillo plays badminton at Freedom Park’s gym in Camarillo on Aug. 5. 
Photos by BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers HERE, BIRDIE, BIRDIE—Sabrina Sysavath of Camarillo plays badminton at Freedom Park’s gym in Camarillo on Aug. 5. Photos by BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers COMMENTARY

I am a champion, a member of a great dynasty.

But, please, save your applause.

Yes, I was a member of the last CIF-Southern Section high school badminton title squad in 2006.

During my junior year at Villa Park High in Orange County, I helped the Spartans claim an unprecedented sixth consecutive CIF title.

By “helped” I mean I played No. 2 doubles with my elementary school buddy Patrick Cabrera for most of the regular season.

Come playoff time, the coaches, Bob Malaythong and Raju Rai, two of the top players on the U.S. Olympic men’s badminton team at the time, stacked our lineup with more experienced players to ensure the record-breaking feat. Many might remember Malaythong from taking a shuttlecock to the shin from David “Big Papi” Ortiz in a Vitaminwater commercial in 2007. I didn’t mind not riding the pine in the postseason.

SMOOTH MOVES—Ed Enriquez of Camarillo returns the shuttlecock during a badminton game at Freedom Park on Aug. 5. SMOOTH MOVES—Ed Enriquez of Camarillo returns the shuttlecock during a badminton game at Freedom Park on Aug. 5. My physical education teacher, Sherry Smith, who was head coach of the team for three of the first five section titles, asked me to try out in 2005 after I dominated my third period P.E. classmates as a socially awkward sophomore.

I tried out and made the team, but I didn’t actually join the squad until the following year.

I just didn’t think it’d be that competitive. I was a lifelong athlete who grew up playing soccer and Little League baseball.

The racket game looked too easy. Badminton? C’mon. How hard can it be?

Hit the birdie in bounds and don’t let it land on your half.

Simple, right? Nope.

There was much more to it, and I wanted to learn it all after getting outclassed by a teammate.

The training was grueling; I had to return hundreds of shots a day that coaches hit to every corner of the small, yet spacious, court.

I quickly learned that using brute force every point wasn’t the best approach. Drop shots were as crucial as defensive clears, and footwork was everything.

The strategy was similar to tennis in that the goal was to place shots where your opponent wasn’t, but there was much more finesse on the badminton court.

It took time to perfect the skills needed: the ability to place a net shot just so; the explosiveness to launch a lift shot to the back line.

That year, I gained a true appreciation for what the best badminton players in the world can do with a racket and shuttlecock. I haven’t judged a sport before trying it since.

It’s a shame most of our local prep athletes will likely never enjoy badminton.

The Southern Section dropped badminton as a sport after the 2006 season due to dwindling numbers.

There’s surprisingly never really been an interest in Ventura County. Badminton is the second most played sport—right behind soccer—with an estimated 220 million players around the world.

Only 43 out of 586 high schools field teams in the Southern Section, including programs at Long Beach Poly, Cerritos and Chino Hills.

It would take nearly triple the amount of teams (115 to be exact) to bring badminton back as an officially sanctioned sport, but that doesn’t seem likely with kids choosing to play up-and-coming sports like lacrosse, Ultimate Frisbee and competitive cheer.

Badminton might not be making a return to a campus near you, but the sport isn’t going away.

Dozens of locals gather throughout the week at open courts throughout Acorn country, including Goebel Adult Community Center in Thousand Oaks, Freedom Park in Camarillo and Borchard Community Center in Newbury Park, to partake in some friendly badminton matches.

Attendees ranged from spry 70-year-olds to curious 7-year olds at the Agoura Hills/Calabasas Community Center one recent Tuesday night.

Eugene Tsang, an Agoura resident, petitioned to have badminton nights at the community center nearly a decade ago.

“He was just trying to find a place to play,” said Westlake resident Teresa Tsang, Eugene’s daughter. Teresa played point guard for the Agoura girls’ basketball team.

“They were surprised when my dad petitioned,” she said. “They thought he was making up names. They actually went and called the 60-plus people who petitioned this.”

On Tuesday nights, about 40 people share six courts at the community center.

Sets are played to 21 points. Participants only play two sets before switching out to allow other players court time.

It’s not about having a winner and loser, said Hal Rumenapp, a 63-year-old database administrator who lives in Thousand Oaks. For the 10-year veteran of the sport, who got his start in a badminton class at Santa Monica College, it’s about the joy of the game.

“I appreciate good shots from the other team as much as shots from my own,” he said.

Joseph Tang, a 59-year-old Simi Valley resident who moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1976, said he’s enjoyed the sport since he was a youngster playing outdoors in China.

“I tried softball but I never picked it up,” he said. “Basketball, I don’t think I’m strong enough. Tennis also requires a lot of strength. Badminton can be pretty intense, but it suits my strength. It’s something I can do and I can do fairly well.”

Anyone can play badminton, which is why Chittaranjan Debata, the president of Thousand Oaks Badminton Organization, is hoping his group can foster growth and interest in the sport locally.

The organization has 89 members and nearly 200 players. The nonprofit offers training programs for players of all ages and collaborates with community centers to create more open-court times.

Badminton hasn’t taken off in Ventura County yet, but it’s admirable to see members of the local community share their love of the game.

I hope many Acorn readers will give the sport a chance, just like I did back in the day.

Heck, the sport enabled me to win a section title. Now if I could only find my CIF championship patch . . .

Email Jonathan Andrade at jandrade@theacorn.com.

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