International Racquetball Tour (IRT) #4-ranked player, Jose Rojas, just recently made his second ever final in a Tier 1 Pro Stop. Having played past venerable veteran Alvaro Beltran, he met Rocky Carson in the final of the IRT’s Temperature Control’s Pro/Am event. He didn’t manage to win this one, but his overall result is a testament to his resolve and training in the 209. Rojas was coming off relatively early round loses for a number 3 seed in both the US Open and the IRT’s New Jersey Rollout Pro Stop. Rojas, 23 years old, turned pro in 2008 and has worked his way into the top 5, where he has set himself up for a solid run.
It’s all in the set-up one might say. For some die hard followers of organized racquetball in the United States and South America, the term “The 209” is known to refer to Stockton, California. It’s the area code where there is some serious racquetball programming being facilitated. Headed up by Dave Ellis, current coach of the U.S. National Racquetball Team and his son, John Ellis. They run a weekly camp that involves a serious look at tactical play geared towards getting groups of players to learn situational opportunities during match play. Within the curriculum, the group is also then worked into ladder-type play, where they take their positioning pretty seriously. Dave Ellis is Rojas’s official coach and has him participate in the same manner as all the other players in the camp, whose levels of play run the gamut with divisional representation.
Dave Ellis, a former high school teacher, plans out his lessons daily, drawing from ideas he derives from circumstances that arise during matches that he watches both as a coach and a fan.
He loves to coach as well as talk racquetball. His son, John, is a former top professional player who is well stocked with IRT Tier 1 wins that include two IRT Pro Nationals wins. A former USA National Champion, he’s accumulated several doubles titles and a Pan Am Games Gold for Men’s Singles. And like Rojas, John holds loads of Juniors titles. Papa Ellis has been John’s coach since age 3. Together, they facilitate the programming in Stockton.
The 209 meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays for court work. There is also a commitment to physical training a couple days a week, though Wednesday seems to be the day that they get serious with it. Spend any time with this group and you will see a quiet pride in conditioning. (And not so quiet; they will let you know with trash talk if you’re not meeting a standard.) Physical Trainer Jesse Serna, a Stockton native, leads a handful of players in an intense workout that starts with intense stretching, warm ups that focus on speed and body control, all leading up to training that is specifically designed with racquetball play in mind. Serna sometimes even travels with players from Stockton to major tournaments throughout California. If you’ve seen Jose Rojas play recently, you can note his dynamic intense play and that physical conditioning hasn’t been an issue for him at all.
Currently, some of the notable players growing out of The 209 include Ektelon’s Team Adrenalin players Jose Serrano and David Horn, along with Jose Diaz who is the current USAR Jr. National Singles and Doubles Champion and Marko Rojas the current World Jr. Singles and Doubles Champion and the current US Team Qualifying Champion, brother of Jose Rojas. All these players mentioned have full intentions of making plays into professional racquetball. That said, there is also a seriousness shared when it comes to education. They continue with their studies and support each other’s need to do so. A tremendous credit must be given to 209 coach, Jody Nance, who is remarkably dedicated. Jody has held classes for the younger players for 20+ years. It was from her leadership that the nucleus of Team Adrenaline stayed with racquetball as they were developing throughout their childhood years.
One can look at the programming facilitated by Dave Ellis and draw similarities to some of the work being done with squash in the United States. Street Squash and other very successful programs like it, mix squash training with academic training and showcase these kids to top-tier schools. Although there is no official scholastic component, the disciplined regime only serves to enforce a good work ethic. Jose Rojas, who will be graduating from University of the Pacific, a really good private university with a beautiful campus in Stockton, California, is serious about his coursework. The university’s student demographic, average in Diversity for a private institution, could further benefit from having more students of color like Jose. Rojas made his way into UOP after attending a local community college and with informal assistance from Coach Ellis Playing professional racquetball (and continuing to hold a top 5 position,) and continuing to maintain a course load is no little deal. It is very notable and hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Athletic Director at University of the Pacific recently contacted and met with Ellis and some of his players. Whether it was to find ways to engage to local community in Stockton or to take a serious look at ways to access more students like Rojas remains to be seen. But it definitely presents an opportunity to turn what’s happening in Stockton racquetball into something with extraordinary potential.
The racquetball programming in the 209 doesn’t just reach local players. John and Dave Ellis do have a history of working with players outside the United States, specifically Central and South America. Many of these players have spent time in Stockton. Dave and his wife Pat, often host players and visitors in their home specifically to allow them to access to what’s going on in Stockton. As Dave is now US Team Coach, however, he is prohibited from working directly with international players. Currently Francisco Troncoso from Chile trains with John Ellis in Stockton, as does Chilean teammate Carla Munoz. At age 19, “Cisco” is one of the top 3 players out of Chile. Other players of note include Claudine Garcia and 19-year-old Luis Perez of the Dominican Republic, as well as a host of talent coming from Venezuela. This year, Veronica Sotomayor made her way back into the Women’s professional scene after a long hiatus. At age 16 -17, Sotomayor, who spent over a year with the Ellises made it to a #6 ranking and beat Rhonda Rajsich twice during that tenure. She also defeated Kerri Wachtel and Christi Van Hees, three former US Open Champions. Now 21, Veronica showed up to the US Open and ran into the semi-final in the LPRT Women’s Pro division, where she lost to world #1 Paola Longoria, (who herself spent a small amount of time in Stockton at one point early in her career).
The feel of these regular camps is very light and fun, although, the competition does get pretty intense and does include a healthy dose of trash talk. And they start them young. Even the really young players aren’t afraid to call out top ranked players on recent performances… crazy. That said, the Ellises do create an open and welcoming environment that is helped along by the friendly demeanor of the regulars. They are always talking about ways to build excitement in the sport. Very recently, John Ellis, with help from the IRT Network’s Nick Irvine (who also participates and helps run the camps), hosted and broadcasted a type of team racquetball modeled after World Team Tennis. It was broadcasted for free on the IRT Network’s Ektelon TV channel.
Stockton, California may be small, but it’s a hotbed of racquetball activity. John Ellis and Jose Rojas are prime examples of what this area can produce when it comes to IRT rankings. Whether or not the Ellis’ programing leads to something with a broader mission and formal ties with good colleges, the work in The 209 promises to produce more bodies within the IRT top ten rankings.