Kane Waselenchuk at 2010 Ektelon Nationals

Looking into the 2011-2012 IRT Season

Top-tier tournament action is back! It’s the only place you can watch ALL of the top players on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT), including Kane Waselenchuk, who will defend his 113-match record-breaking unbeaten streak spanning into the 2011-2012 IRT season. But before you tune into the 12th Annual Ghost of Georgetown Championships presented by Novasors tournament September 15-18, take a look at Bryan Shaw’s take on the tour, analyzing the pros’ performance and what we might expect this season.

Two Top Guys You Probably Won’t See This Season:

While there is plenty of excitement and anticipation leading up to the kickoff of the 2011-2012 pro tour, don’t expect to see a couple familiar faces in the mix.  Mitch Williams has been a top eight staple on tour since the 2006-2007 season, finishing as high as #6 on the pro tour in both the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 seasons.  The 2010-2011 was a difficult season for the hard-hitting lefty as he finished #13.  He was plagued by injuries all season and never seemed to get back to normal.  Facing severe shoulder surgery and a potentially long recovery, Mitch opted to end his career early.

Jack Huczek finished in the top four each of the last nine seasons, an impressive feat only bettered by one other player during the same timeframe.  Despite having an introverted personality, Jack was a polarizing figure on tour. He worked very hard to maintain an exceptional fitness level and develop the consistency to climb the rankings. The results of his hard work started to surface at the same time as Kane Waselenchuk.  For years they both seemed a level ahead of the rest of the pack, but at the same time Kane was able to stay a level ahead of Jack. The fan base wanted a rivalry between the two young stars, but Kane’s dominance never let that happen.  Normally a familiar face in the finals for years, Jack only made one final during the 2010-2011 season. He retired from the sport the week of Ektelon Nationals presented by Penn.

Alvaro Beltran:

Despite finishing #12 last season and #32 the season before, don’t let that fool you.  Alvaro was a top four finisher the four seasons before that, and a top six finisher the three seasons before that.  A couple major knee surgeries has prevented him from playing as many events the past couple years, but he still made two finals last season including the US Open.  Health is the main issue, but if he is able to keep his body together so that he can play enough events he should put together another consistent season, making a push to get back closer to the top four.  His low seeding will create some early round mismatches, so look for some surprising and entertaining first round and second round matches.

Tony Carson

Tony Carson:

Finishing in the top 30 the last four seasons, Tony put together his best year last season to finish #11.  While he was able to get into the round of sixteen pretty consistently most of last season, he wasn’t able to break past until the last four tournaments of the season.  He upset Shane Vanderson in a five-game battle in Salt Lake to get to the quarterfinals before turning around the next week to upset Chris Crowther in a five-game battle in St. Louis to advance to that quarterfinal, pushing Ben Croft to the max in a another last-night five-game war.  He capped the season at Ektelon Nationals presented by Penn with an upset against Jose Rojas in the round of sixteen to advance to that quarterfinal, before Crowther ended Tony’s season by avenging the loss incurred during their prior match-up.

Tony’s development was slow but steady last season.  After consistently getting to the round of sixteen for most of the year, he was finally able to punch through during the last few tournaments.  He was able to achieve upsets in consecutive tournaments, but wasn’t able to achieve consecutive upsets during the same tournament.  That will be what he needs to push into the top ten, while vying for one of the top eight coveted spots.  Look for Tony to build on last season, making the round of sixteen in most of the tournaments, and making more quarterfinal appearances earlier in the season.

Anthony Herrera

Anthony Herrera:

Anthony has finished in the top twenty the last four seasons, but last season was his best as he grabbed the #10 spot.  Anthony played almost all of the tournaments the first half of the year and was able to get to the round of sixteen in all but one of them.  His lone breakthrough finally happened in Terre Haute as he got past Jose Rojas in a five-gamer pushed to the limit, before falling to Croft in the quarterfinals in another five-game marathon.  He went on to make it to the round of sixteen in all the remaining tournaments except one.

This season, look for Anthony to continue to put forth a solid effort, playing almost every tournament and consistently making it to the round of sixteen.  He is going to need to develop a better playbook on those ahead of him to notch consistent upsets.  As he tries to push up the ranks, instead of quick jumps look for it to happen one level at a time.

Charlie Pratt:
While Charlie has played the tour the past five seasons, the last two have had him around full-time.  He finished #11 two seasons ago and broke in the top ten last season at #9.  Another player who routinely made the round of sixteen, Charlie saw his first quarterfinal last season at the US Open.  He upset Crowther before losing to Huczek.  He made his next quarterfinal two tournaments later when he upset Mitch Williams before losing Croft.  His third was in Terre Haute by knocking off Shane Vanderson before falling to Waselenchuk.  He upset Rojas in St. Louis and Vanderson in Mexico to make two other quarterfinals.

Look for Charlie to build on last season and put together another solid run, trying to push into a top eight spot.  If he is able to keep from losing before the round of sixteen, make consistent quarterfinal appearances, and string together some back-to-back upsets his is likely to build a really good season and give us a look at his potential.

Jose Rojas

Jose has shown great development his first three seasons

Jose Rojas

on tour finishing #24, #10, and most recently #8.  While two seasons ago Jose made two quarterfinal appearances, last season Jose was present in over half of them.  He even pushed into a couple semis by notching upsets against Croft and Huczek, with both upsets happening at tournaments in Mexico.  Based on those results he surely lobbied to get all of the events moved south of the border.  While that didn’t happen, the number did double as there are four currently on the schedule.

Jose has been viewed as one of the next up-and-comers.  Despite his young age, he has shown remarkable talent and a calm head.  In order to improve on last season, he needs to be able to get to more than half of the quarterfinals and push into more semifinals.  This could be Jose’s breakout season.  Look for him to try and make his mark early.

Shane Vanderson:

After breaking the top ten during the 2003-2004 season, Shane has finished seventh or better the last seven seasons.  Despite climbing as high as fifth in the last three of five, Shane finished #7 last season, which has him at his lowest finish since the 2005-2006 season.  His make or break style makes it difficult for him to roll enough splats to carry him through an entire tournament.

This season needs to be a rebound season for Shane.  Despite enduring significant personal tragedy during the season and missing a Grand Slam event, he put together a very respectable season.  He made at least 70% of the quarterfinals and 15% of the semis in the tournaments he played, but those percentages were  90% and 30%, respectively, the prior season.  Once the pup, Shane is now one of the veterans, logging over ten years on tour. That means that father time makes soreness more severe, injuries longer to heal, and recovery during the tournament more difficult to stay fresh.  If Shane can prevent first round losses and make a few more semifinals, then he’ll work his way back up the ranks, but he won’t likely crack the top four unless he can push into a couple finals this season.

Andy Hawthorne:

Andy Hawthorne

After bouncing between the #9 and #11 spot the preceding five seasons, Andy finally hit his stride and finished #6 last season.  After losing in the round of sixteen to Rojas at the first tournament of the season, Andy went on to make every subsequent quarterfinal.  He had plenty of five-game battles getting through the round of sixteen, but he was unable to notch wins against the top four players.  He played Rocky, Kane, and Ben four times each (and Jack once) in the quarterfinals, but routinely lost in three games.  He snuck a couple games off Ben during the year and missed his biggest opportunity for an upset after being up in the fifth game against Rocky in St. Louis.

Obviously, if Andy wants to move up in the ranks he has to be able to beat the players ranked ahead of him.  That starts by winning games.  If he can push those guys to four games and five games during the matches he might be able to put forward a winning game plan and start to make a couple semis.  He has shown that he can defend his position by winning almost every round of sixteen match last season.  However, he needs to win them in a more convincing fashion.  Getting stretched out with constant four and five game matches against lower ranking opponents is depleting some of the energy he needs for those battles in the quarters.

Chris Crowther:

Chris has been a consistent finisher in the top ten over the past six seasons, but he put it together last season and finished a career best #5.  Chris made it to one final, another semi, and made it to the quarterfinals in almost 80% of the tournaments.  The only major blemish was three first round losses to Charlie Pratt, Jose Rojas, and Tony Carson.  He played with a bad back all season and made every tournament, but it did affect his results as he had to pull out of a couple tournaments early.

The implementation of the two-serves at the pro level helped Chris.  As the tour’s tallest player, he carries considerable leverage and hits the ball as hard as anyone.  Being able to utilize a hard drive serve as a major weapon was a significant advantage last season.  The trade-off is that it could have contributed to his back issues.  Chris worked hard during the offseason to get his back in one piece for the season.  He needs to avoid the early round departures and push through to more semis this year.  Mix in a couple finals and he’ll be able to hold his ranking and push for a top four spot.

Ben Croft:

Ben has finished ninth or better the last five seasons.  He has made a solid push the last three seasons getting better each year finishing #8, #6, and #3.  A push into the top four was a major accomplishment and Ben was actually the number one seed in Mexico.  He made 80% of the semis, was only knocked out in the quarterfinals twice, and only had one first-round exit.  It was obviously Ben’s best season so far.

Ben Croft

Ben’s challenge is the two guys ahead of him.  He is winless against Kane in eleven matches (although most players have never beaten Kane) and carries a 2-19 record against Rocky.  He pushed Rocky to four or five games a couple times, but most of the time last season it was losing in three to Rocky and Kane.  He’s worked during the offseason on his game plan against both players, and worked hard to get himself in better shape to try and get even quicker and stronger.  Ben is one of the more animated players on tour, wearing his heart on his sleeve, but sometimes his emotions appear to get the best of him and cost him key points during matches after the initial dispute.  Ben should be able to put together a successful season to keep him in the top four, but he’ll need to earn some consistent wins against Rocky to push in the top two.

Rocky Carson:

Over the past nine seasons Rocky has been consistently one of the top players, finishing in the top six spots every year.  In the past five seasons he has finished in the top three, even notching a season-ending #1 ranking during the 2007-2008 season.  Although last season wasn’t Rocky’s best, it was impressive.  He was only upset the first round once by Alvaro Beltran at the US Open (Alvaro went on to the final), and he only lost in the quarterfinals once against Mitch in 

Rocky Carson

Columbia.  Other than those two blemishes he made every final.  He did have a tournament win in Mexico over Beltran, but the asterisk was that Kane didn’t play in the tournament.  Rocky did push Kane to five games in back-to-back tournaments in Terre Haute and San Diego, but aside from that Kane was his normal dominant self against Rocky.

Rocky is one of the best athletes on tour.  His style is one that gives all of the players fits except Kane.  The last time, and only time, Rocky beat Kane in a tier one event was May 4, 2003.  The other thirty-six times they have played have all gone to Kane, most of the time in a quick and convincing fashion.

Rocky is athletic enough that he could make the adjustments necessary to beat Kane.  However, the first step is fixing his backhand.  While it works against all the other players it isn’t good enough to hang with somebody as quick and powerful as Kane.  Rocky was spotted over the summer working on a new grip and backhand.  Frustrated after a month, he abandoned it.  While he certainly won’t be content playing second fiddle to Kane again this year, he’ll likely finish in the same spot if he doesn’t make the necessary mechanical changes to raise his game.

Kane Waselenchuk:

Kane deserves an entire book for his season preview instead of just a few paragraphs.  Last season he finished #1 on tour.  While that is an incredible feat achieved by only a handful who have played the sport, it was almost expected for Kane.  He’s finished #1 the last three seasons.  He missed the tour for the two seasons preceding that, finished #1 the three seasons before that, and finished #2 the year before that.  Last season Kane played in thirteen of the fourteen events, winning all of them except New York when illness forced him from the tournament before the semifinal.  With his win at Pro Nationals to end last season, Kane extended his current match winning streak to 113 consecutive pro matches!
How does Kane look to improve on the last several seasons?  Keep the winning streak going.  He last lost a match he played on January 11, 2009 against Alvaro Beltran.  Improve on the dominance.  As silly as it sounds, an improvement over last season would be to cut down on the games lost.  He faced a couple five-game matches last season.  Don’t let the opponent get within a game of taking the match.  Stay focused.  While the winning streak is impressive, equally impressive is being able to stay sharp and motivated for so long.

Kane also needs to hurry up and get in everything that he can before father time catches up.  Kane is still in the peak of his career.  Being twenty-nine he still has several years in which he can continue to put up ridiculous results.  Prior great champions logged their last tournament wins between the ages of 32 and 34.  Ruben Gonzalez was the exception being 40, but most professional players will peak in their late twenties and early thirties.  The pro tour is a young man’s sport, but he still has several years that youth is on his side.  The fans need to catch it while they can.  We may never see another era of dominance in this sport again during our lifetimes.

By: Bryan Shaw, IRT Writer