One day in late January Rocky Carson — the number two-ranked player on the International Racquetball Tour (IRT) — spent a few hours surfing in the Pacific Ocean near his home town of Ladera Beach, CA, enjoying the balmy 80-degree weather and bright sunshine. The next day he was on an airplane headed to the Lewis Drug Pro-Am tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “I stepped off the plane right into a blizzard, with temperatures of about 8-below,” Carson said. “Oh, it hurt. But I wouldn’t miss the Lewis Drug Pro-Am for anything,” Carson said.
Why would an elite player who competes in more than a dozen pro stops each year opt for the frigid climes of South Dakota in January when he could just as easily be riding the waves, with his main concern being whether or not he applied enough sunscreen?
Because, like many other professionals and amateurs, the Lewis Drug Pro-Am has become like a destination wedding of a family member or close friend: it is a “must attend” event, and it just keeps getting better every year. “I have been playing professionally for more than 15 years, but when the day comes that I finally retire I still want to come back every year and be part of it,” Carson said. “It is that special.”
What makes it so special? It is a combination of things, according to players and organizers alike. First of all, it has tradition — this year’s tournament marked the 36th in the event’s history. Second, the daily hospitality and a second-to-none Saturday evening banquet sets the “Gold Standard” in racquetball circles. Third, it is the only tour stop that provides a doubles bracket and cash prizes for the pros. Finally, it sports an intimate, homey atmosphere that hearkens to the bygone days of racquetball, when tournaments were staged to be as much a celebration of the sport as a way of identifying the best players in each skill division.
“We are proud of the tournament. We try to keep everything about it top drawer,” said Mark Griffin, CEO of Lewis Drug, whose corporate name has been attached to the since it first began. “The only tournament that comes close is the U.S. Open. We like to think we are the gold standard. It’s what brings the pros to Sioux Falls in January.”
The Lewis Drug Pro-Am – the longest continuously running racquetball tournament in the nation, according to organizers –designated a Tier 1-Plus pro stop during the 2013-2014 season. At the time. It was one of only 10 Tier-1 stops on the IRT tour. “Designating a pro stop as Tier 1 is based on the level of prize money and rankings,” said Jason Mannino, former professional racquetball player and currently president of the IRT. “We also gave it the additional ‘Plus’ designation because it meets not only the criteria for prize money and rankings, it also offers the pros a unique opportunity to compete in doubles, too.”
In the beginning the tournament drew both amateurs and pros from the region: “Players came from South Dakota and other area racquetball centers like Minneapolis and Denver,” Griffin said. Then organizers brought in top professionals like Marty Hogan and Mike Yellen to play exhibition matches, and eventually the tournament became a pro stop in the late 1990s.
As a first time tier 1, the 2014 Lewis Drug Pro/Am drew 21 professionals –including 12 of the 20 top-ranked IRT players –to Sioux Falls to compete for more than $30,000 in prize money. The doubles final pitted number one-ranked Kane Waselenchuk and Mannino against Carson and Jose Rojas. Waselenchuk and Mannino won in a tie-breaker 11-9. Less than a month later Carson and Rojas won the USA Racquetball Men’s Doubles U.S. Team Qualifier in the 47th Annual national Doubles Tournament in Tempe, AZ. “It gave us a chance to prepare for national doubles just a few weeks before that tournament took place,” Carson said.
Waselenchuk dominated in singles at the Lewis Drug Pro-Am, winning all four matches without losing a single game. Apparently Waselenchuk – who played in the event? for the first time this year — took to the tournament and plans to return next year. “I was sitting next to his wife during doubles and she remarked it was nice to see Kane smile on the court again,” said Mark Burd, co-organizer of the event. Mannino said Waselenchuk already has pigeon-holed him to play doubles again next year and defend their title.
Players usually return to tournaments they win, but Lewis Drug’s down-home atmosphere is another reason why pros continue to brave the winter weather to spend four days in Sioux Falls. “I think all the players really appreciate it because it is a throwback to the ‘old time’ days of racquetball tournaments. When the players arrive in town they go straight to the club, not to the hotel. They can expect to play two or three times a day, and maybe as late as midnight,” said Troy Stallings, co-chairman of the tournament. “The pros also get to interact and rub elbows with the everyday players and fans, and that is important to the pros as well as to the others,” Stallings said.
The highlight of the weekend is the Saturday night banquet, which is a high-end catered affair and takes place promptly at 6 p.m. “We basically shut down the tournament on Saturday night for the banquet, which includes a lot of prize giveaways. Anyone associated with the tournament can attend, not just the pros,” Stallings said.
Oddly enough the prize giveaways – items donated by Lewis Drug – are one of the little things that add to the tournament’s legend. “The tournament is always first class, and one of the small things that really make a difference to us are the prizes given away. We are professionals, but we all actually get excited when we get our drawing ticket and they begin raffling off prizes. I don’t usually win things, but in the past I have received a portable DVD player and a drill gun,” Carson said.
If the prizes are too large or cumbersome for the pros to take home with them on an airplane, tournament officials ship them to the final destination free of charge. “We do a lot of the little things the players enjoy, like picking them up at the airport and getting them to the tournament and their hotels. Sometimes we arrange for players to stay with local families to spare them the expense of a hotel for three or four nights,” Stallings said.
Attention to detail is a trademark of the Lewis Drug Pro-Am, and it all begins with the tournament volunteers. “We have a good group of volunteers who keep it moving forward,” Stallings said. One of the key factors, according to tournament insiders, is the leadership and dedication of Griffin, whose behind-the-scenes involvement has made the tournament what it is today. ”Mark is a rare kind of supporter because, as CEO of Lewis Drug, he is able to open a lot of doors and support racquetball and this tournament like no one else can. He tries to help racquetball whenever possible,” Stallings said.
Mannino described Griffin as an “incognito” type of leader who does not seek the limelight or credit.
“I call Mark ‘South Dakota nice’, and he is not the type to seek a pat on the back. I believe his effort comes from his desire to simply put on the best tournament possible,” Mannino said.
Mark Burd, another co-organizer of the tournament, called Griffin “the driving force behind this tournament, although he is not an out-in-front-and-center type of person. He is very humble. We have a lot of dedicated volunteers, but the fact is the Lewis Drug Pro-Am is a jewel in the middle of nowhere because of Mark and his team,” Burd said.
Another detail Griffin is adamant about maintaining is that players at all levels can expect the prize money advertised for each draw to stay the same regardless of the number of entrants.“We may combine a division or two, but players can always be confident they will receive the prize money advertised. Mark has said he will remain consistent on prize money because he feels if the prize money can change based on the number of entrants in a draw, why even have prize money?”
Griffin’s crowning achievement arrived in July. The Sioux Falls Family YMCA opened two new racquetball courts funded by Griffin and other racquetball supporters. “Mark and Jeff Scherschligt, who sits on the YMCA Board of Directors, have guaranteed the $250,000 needed to fund the project,” said Mike Gulick, President and CEO of the Sioux Falls Family YMCA.
Gulick said that when the YMCA Board began developing its strategic plan a few years ago, the proposed renovation of the entire facility called for reducing the number of racquetball courts from six to two. Such a reduction could have had a significant negative impact on the tournament because the professional matches have always been staged at the YMCA. Amateur play takes place at other nearby satellite clubs. “But Mark and Jeff stepped up and asked the board to consider installing two new, ‘feature’ courts with glass side walls using outside funds provided through volunteer efforts. “We approved the plan, and we expect the courts to be open and operational sometime in June,” Gulick said.
The new courts not only will provide spectators a better view of the tournament action – temporary bleachers can be set up courtside to allow a few hundred people an up-close racquetball experience – but the project also will aid in developing a youth program for the Sioux Falls area racquetball community. “I think the goal right now is to get kids more excited about playing the sport as our core group of racquetball players ages. Mark would like to get kids more involved and keep it going for another 50 years so the sport continues on long after we are gone,” Burd said.
Gulick said the improvements “are a key step in enhancing racquetball for our racquetball community, as well as helping us to develop a solid juniors program. It will be pretty awesome.”
Griffin has long been a long-time supporter of racquetball and the YMCA, where he has been a member since the 1960s. He began playing racquetball on outdoor courts while attending Arizona State University. “I’ve played the game for 40 years and love the sport,” Griffin said.
“Mark is a terrific guy, a great ambassador for the sport of racquetball. His love of the sport extends far outside of Sioux Falls, and Sioux Falls is lucky to have him right here,” Gulick said. “He is not necessarily comfortable being in the forefront, but he has meant so much to our racquetball community. His actions speak for themselves, and he puts his money where his mouth is.”
As for Carson, he plans on returning next year regardless of weather conditions. “I haven’t seen the plans for the two new courts, but I have heard about them. I am really excited. I can’t wait to get back there next year and play on them,” Carson said.
By Don Grigas
Don Grigas is an award-winning journalist who grew up on the south side of Chicago and is now living in Bolingbrook, IL, where he first developed a passion for racquetball. In 1979 Don played his first game of racquetball at the Bolingbrook Park District Racquet and Health Club. Within two years Don rose from a Novice to an Open player, and shortly thereafter became the club professional at the Naper Olympic Fitness Center for more than 20 years until that facility closed in 2007. After winning three state championships in doubles, Don retired from active playing and now writes for the IRT web site, as well as working on other free lance projects.