IRT Pros Join 450 Juniors in St. Louis for Racquetball Winter Rollout Tournament

mohsra logoRocky Carson’s more aggressive game style seemed to throw Kane Waselenchuk off, or at least nudge him with longer rallies that forced the #1 pro to hit off-balance instead of setting up his shots. In the end, Waselenchuk defeated Rocky Carson 11-6, 11-4, 11-1 for the 2016 St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout Championship.

St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout Pro Draw

2016 St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout Championship

Kane Waselenchuk d Rocky Carson 11-6, 11-4, 11-1

Kane Waselenchuk took a well-earned breather after winning the championship match at the 2016 St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout Championship.

Kane Waselenchuk took a well-earned breather after winning the championship match at the 2016 St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout Championship.

Waselenchuk is such a momentum player that he’s hard to stop once he’s on a roll, but Carson did a great job combating Waselenchuk’s drive in the first game, but he couldn’t maintain it in the long run.

“It was honestly more competitive than we’ve seen,” said former IRT Referee and IRT Network announcer Charlie Pratt after the match. “But overall Waselenchuk slowly improved as the score showed.”

Carson came out on fire over the weekend. Possibly because the Galaxy Custom Printing IRT Pro/Am in Atlanta results were disappointing for Carson last October, he seemed to have worked hard in the interim.

“I still get excited watching them play. Carson proved why he’s the #2 player in the world. He continues to fight Kane as hard as he can every single time. It’s cool to see and wonder what he’ll do as we’re coming into the matches. He thinks he can win every time. It might be the Kane show, but it’s also #1 versus #2,” Pratt pointed out. “Racquetball is dominated by game style. You never know who’s going to beat whom. There are players who I have an easier time beating than others ranked lower than me.”

The two at the top of the rankings have the same experience and age. Carson has the tools of an experienced veteran and is in phenomenal shape, but that’s not enough against Waselenchuk, especially during weekends like this when Waselenchuk notches up his game, hitting harder and faster, which makes the difference.

“Kane continues to look healthy, which is a big thing,” Pratt noted. “Once a year or so he gets an injury, nothing serious as he plays more matches than anyone. He’s playing well and looks good, physically. That’s dangerous to his opponents. And neither seems to be aging. They’re not slowing down.”

carson-jsj-stl-2016

Rocky Carson packs up after the hard fought 2016 St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout Championship

It’s hard to argue that the two top players aren’t in their prime, benefiting from the experience while keeping themselves in shape. It would take something else for them to stop competing, but not a physical thing.

“When it’s all said and done, fans will talk about their rivalry. Even as they talk about how ‘Rocky and Kane’ is a lopsided match, but Carson pushes Waselenchuk on a regular basis, forcing him to play his best ball. They meet in the final, so Carson faces a different Kane than in the Round of 16s. Rocky runs into the very best of Kane in the finals.” And the very best of both players is what the fans get to see.

Semifinal Round

Kane Waselenchuk d Jose Rojas 11-2, 11-6, 12-10

With two power shooters on the court, there was no question whether the game would be at a blistering speed, but speculation centered on whether a fitter, more focused, and rested Rojas would execute the kills he’d need to give Waselenchuk, the reigning and most winning champion, a solid run. Both came out aggressively, exchanging winning rallies, as Waselenchuk’s ace serve and kills scoring first. Rojas dialed into his backhand reverse pinch for the serve, and then made a big reach to score, 1-3. Waselenchuk came back quickly, delivering racking up ace serves to drive the score, 5-2. Two skipped serve returns had Rojas behind 2-7, and calling a time out. Both came back hitting strong as Waselenchuk took off for the game, 11-2.

Rojas came back in game two seemingly ready to put Waselenchuk on the defensive, sticking with his backhand pinch to earn the serve and killed the ball to tie the score at 1-1. Rojas stuck to the ball and had Waselenchuk moving around to take the lead, 3-1 and then tied the score at 5-5 with quick feet and solid shots. Serving at 6-6, Waselenchuk didn’t let up, tying the score at 6-6. With missile speed backhands and serves that kept Rojas off-balance as Waselenchuk pulled away for the game at 11-6. 

In game three Rojas scored first, but Waselenchuk kept Rojas on the defensive to skip shots, miss serve returns, and even with his quick feet unable to get to the ball. A hinder called on Waselenchuk gave Rojas the serve, called an ace. Waselenchuk made an appeal for a short serve. Denied, but not out as he pounded the ball while Rojas couldn’t only react and play Waselenchuk’s game as the #1 pro pulled away, 6-1. The only thing he seemed to lose that game was an appeal on a Rojas’ ace serve that Waselenchuk wanted called short, and a rolled ball called a skip until Rojas gained the momentum, and pulled back in the game, 6-9. Serving at 6-9, Not easy to have opponent score a run, and then come back into the box and execute like he’d like, but Rojas did, drawing two skips from Waselenchuk to pull closer, 8-9. Waselenchuk said no, putting power on a difficult get for the serve, but skipped the next point. Rojas continued his run, tying the score at 9-9 on lob serves, setting up a couple of skips before killing the returned serve. When a Waselenchuk return was called a skip at 10-9, Rojas served for game point. Waselenchuk buried the ball in front right corner to regain the serve before delivering an ace of his own. 11-10. Excitement began to build as it looked like Rojas might take a game, but he skipped the next two balls for a Waselenchuk 12-10 win. 

Rocky Carson d Alvaro Beltran 2-11, 11-4, 11-1, 11-9

Two veterans on the Tour faced off for the 44th time, with #2 Carson enjoying a 24-20 head-to-head advantage against #4 Beltran. After a quick win in his quarterfinal match, Carson was looking to continue his lead as he stepped in the box to serve first. Beltran killed the return. Rocky continued to shoot aggressively, but it worked against him as he tended to skip, especially with Beltran’s high lob to the right dialed into within centimeters of the wall. Beltran up 8-2. After the ball hit the bottom of Rocky’s foot ending a rally, Rocky left the court earning a technical from IRT referee, Scott McClellan, for not calling a timeout. He didn’t seem to notice when the score was called 9-1. Carson seemed off and Beltran dialed in for an 11-2 win in game 1. In game two Carson seemed more focused, getting into the game as he wore Beltran down physically. Rocky’s fitness and longer rallies favored him as the momentum shifted in his favor for an 11-4 win. Carson maintained the momentum in game three, going on the offensive by serving drives first and hard z-serves (if needed) on the second to take control of the game for an 11-1 win. Game 4 Beltran came back on the court wanting to take the game and force a 5th, tiebreaking match. Carson wasn’t letting up, pulling to a 2-0 lead. Beltran stayed within 2 to 3 points until the two tied at 7-7 on a 3-point streak with 3 lob serves bringing Beltran to a 7-7 tie. Beltran ahead with a diving rollout 9-7, but Rocky held on for an 11-9 win for the match.   

Quarterfinal Round

#4 Jose Rojas d #12 Charlie Pratt 11-6, 7-11, 11-6, 11-1

Rojas came out shooting hard and looking strong, fresh after missing the last tournament as he’d been ill last month in Atlanta. Rojas served well and controlled the pace of the game from the moment he stepped onto the court. Pratt seemed to have a hard time keeping up with the pace of the game. Until, in the second game, Pratt took time out and slowed the pace of game controlling center court to force Rojas into sloppy skip returns by keeping him off balance for a win 7-11 to tie the match. Going into the third game, Rojas turned up the heat to pick up where he left off in the first, pushing Pratt hard to win 11-6. In between games three and four, Rojas dug deeper and never looked back, almost delivering Pratt a donut before Pratt an ace-serve. Rojas won 11-1.

#6 Alvaro Beltran d #3 Daniel De La Rosa 11-5, 11-8, 11-5

In what was expected to be the match of the tournament, Beltran and De La Rosa faced off. De La Rosa came out flat and Beltran took advantage by jumping in early. Beltran rarely wins the first game, but this was an exception with his 11—5 win. De La Rosa looked threatening in game two, and they were neck in neck until Beltan hit a crack ace serve at 8-11 for an 11-8 win. In the third game, Beltran kept up the momentum by using lobs to the right for an 11-5 win. According to John Scott, IRT Network announcer, it’s the best he’s seen Beltran play in long time.

#1 Kane Waselenchuk d #9 Mario Mercado 11-6, 11-1, 11-0

Meeting for the second time in their careers, Mercado scored early to a 3-3 tie, with the kind of speed and agility that has speculating he’s a #1 in the making. He kept up with racquetball’s most winning pro, with both players slamming the ball until Waselenchuk broke the ball at 6-4. Pop quiz: If the ball’s broken on the 2nd serve, does play resume at the first serve or second? Although Waselenchuk disagreed, IRT Referee Scott McClellan ruled: second serve. Both players continued to pound the ball with Waselenchuk pulling ahead up 8-4, when McClellan called a skip. Waselenchuk appealed, After McClellan reviewed the video and agreed the ball was good, Waselenchuk said, “Yeah. I know.” Mercado raced around the court and gave Waselenchuk a solid game, but Waselenchuk took game one 11-5.

Game two Waselenchuk turned off the heat and switched to a backhand lob serve, which Mercado put away for his own turn in the box at 1-2. Mercado competed with the kind of confidence geared to win, but Waselenchuk’s targeted kills, blazing speed, and soft hands showed demonstrated why he’s the world’s most dominant pro. At 6-1 Mercado took a timeout, and came back hitting hard. Not enough. Waselenchuk rolled to a 10-1 lead, and was already turning to walk off the court when the ref called the second game, Waselenchuk’s 11- 1 win.

Mercado served first in game three, starting a string of kills and re-kills with Waselenchuk that had both players exchanging the serve. Waselenchuk drew ahead, 3-0 lead killing the ball and putting Mercado on the defensive. Waselenchuk’s dominance proved too much for an 11-0 win.

#2 Rocky Carson d #7 Jansen Allen 11-1, 11-3, 11-4

Screaming passing shots and kills opened the quarterfinal round with Carson shooting down-the-line and cross-courts inches from the floor for a 9-1 lead. Allen got a chance in the box with a down-the-line of his own, but he couldn’t convert. Game 1 Rocky Carson, 11-1 Allen took a play from Carson’s book from game 1, and dialed into his own passing game for the first point. It seemed Allen would give Carson more of a run, but a skips and high balls gave Carson all the room he needed to pull away for an 11-3 win. At 1-2 in game 3 Allen’s frustration was starting to show, but he put the energy to good use for the serve, eventually tying the match at four each. It looked like the momentum might start to change, but Carson wore down the #7 seed. At 4-7, Allen took a timeout. When they returned to the court, Carson continued to frustrate Allen to a 11-4 win for the match and his quickest win on the IRT Tour.

Round of 16s on Friday

#2 Rocky Carson d #15 Samuel Murray 11-3, 11-8, 11-10

#7 Jansen Allen d #10 Felipe Camacho 6-11, 11-2,  11-8, 11-2

#1 Kane Waselenchuk d #16 Dylan Reid 11-3, 11-1, 11-7

#9 Mario Mercado d #8 Markie Rojas 11-6, 11-5, 11-5

#3 Daniel De La Rosa d #14 David Bobby Horn 11-9, 11-5, 9-11, 11-7

#6 Alvaro Beltran d #11 Robert Collins 11-8, 11-6, 11-8

#12 Charlie Pratt d #5 Sebastian Franco 7-11, 11-8, 12-10, 11-6

#4 Jose Rojas d #13 Scott McClellan 11-5, 11-1, 11-5

IRT Pros Join 450 Juniors in St. Louis for Racquetball Winter Rollout Tournament

The St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout, one of the “really cool” tournaments in the 2016-2017 IRT season on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT), showcases outstanding high school players on the same stage as the world’s top racquetball stars. The Missouri High School Racquetball Association (MOHSRA) is again combining the St. Louis Winter Rollout, the largest junior tournament in the world with about 450 players, with the annual St. Louis Tier 1 IRT tournament on Nov. 17-19.

The inaugural event last year had a “profound effect” on the local racquetball community, said Shari Coplen, the St. Louis pro stop Tournament Director.

What pleased her most was the free clinics the IRT pros held for the high school players. “They were great about it,” she said of the pros. “There was the spirit of giving back to the sport they love.”

“Kids got to see a lot … and parents were amazed at the skill level. Everyone was so appreciative.”

Some of the pros even jumped in to help fellow IRT stars holding the clinics, Coplen said with a laugh.

Scheduling around matches was a challenge, but the clinics kicked off well with the #1 player in the world, Kane Waselenchuk, holding a session on “What it takes to be a Winner.”

Other clinics focused on strategy, serves, doubles play and coaching tips. There also was “Play the Pro.” Not scary, right?

Waselenchuk beat #2-ranked Rocky Carson 11-2, 11-5, 11-2 in last year’s St. Louis IRT final. He is expected to return this year after claiming his 12th US Open Championship and 100th title on Oct. 9 in Minneapolis.

“I think the word is getting around that it’s a really cool tournament,” Coplen said of the Winter Rollout.

MOHSRA Director and newly appointed President of the United States Association of Racquetball, Dan Whitley, agreed, saying: “One of the real reasons for pairing the tournaments was for the young players to see the higher potential ceiling for performance.”

He said young athletes try to duplicate what they see the pros do, much like after watching the St. Louis Cardinals or St. Louis Blues, the city’s pro baseball and hockey teams.

“What was really cool was the interaction between the pros and the kids,” he said, adding that the high school players were much “more engaged” throughout the tournament.

He praised the IRT pros as great “role models.”

Whitley says organizing the tournaments at two venues ‑ the Vetta Sports Concord and Missouri Athletic Club West (MAC) – is easier than trying to do it at one location because of potential scheduling conflicts. The pros compete at the MAC, while the high school players use both venues.

The high school tournament features seven divisions, boys and girls, based on skill level (varsity and junior varsity). Cor Jesu Academy (girls) and St. Louis University High (boys) are the perennial favorites.

MOHSRA was founded in 1979 at a chain of racquetball courts around St. Louis. It started with intramural matches among different high schools and then a league was created with different levels. Whitley started with MOHSRA in 2002 when there were about 325 high school racquetball players, a number that has grown dramatically and now extends to a new middle school division. Whitley said his goal is to top 500 players at this year’s tournament.

There will be free viewing of all matches at both locations. The MAC features a glass-walled fishbowl looking stadium court with excellent viewing on all sides.

“It’s a great venue to watch racquetball,” Whitley said of the championship court.

Waselenchuk has dominated the St. Louis IRT stop, like he has done everywhere else on the tour. He won the third and fourth annual tournaments in 2012 and 2013, while Carson took the title in 2014, when Waselenchuk was out because of an injury.

The St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout features only one amateur division, Open Doubles. Last year, Fernando Rios and Jeremy Best defeated John Kleinschmidt and Ryan Maher, 15-11, 15-3. The online registration deadline is Nov. 14. The tournament is being played in memory of one it’s biggest financial supporters, Pete Pierce.

“Everyone loved it” last year and the buzz is already building, Whitley said.

He views racquetball as a “life sport,” where mothers, fathers, sons and daughters can all play together on some level and even pick it up after laying off for an extended time.

Whitley, a tremendous advocate for the sport, hopes the tournament helps cultivate the “next wave of talent.”

Waselenchuk expressed a similar sentiment in an interview with KSTP-TV, a Channel 5 ABC affiliate, at the U.S. Open in October. Speaking of IRT pros, he noted that “this is the most young people I’ve ever seen at a US Open, other than maybe when I was, you know, coming up with my first US Open.” He said it would be good to see more kids from Canada and the U.S., but there’s a lot of young players from South America and Mexico.

“It’s just really good to see. It’s good to see when my time comes up the sport will kind of go on with those younger kids. And I like to think that there’s someone out there who will do what I’m doing now. I’d pay front-row tickets to see it.”

By Jim Medina

Jim Medina is an award-winning writer who got hooked on racquetball at the former Dan Gamel’s Racquet Club in Fresno, CA. A graduate of Fresno State, he now lives in Oxnard, near the beach in Southern California. He is an A-level player striving to elevate his skills to Elite status with the help of a thriving racquetball community at LA Fitness in neighboring Ventura. He is a media consultant who can be reached at ces37743@yahoo.com.