If racquetball fans were looking for something to get excited about on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT), the IRT certainly provided it in the first half of the 2015-2016 IRT season. Epic shoot-out style performances by both new young guns and talented veterans were peppered with stunning losses by the Tour’s elite. While Kane Waselenchuk continues to dominate, veteran #2 and #3 players Rocky Carson and Alvaro Beltran have begun to show vulnerabilities, which more and more of the Tour’s up-and-comers are taking advantage of.
Coupled with a sidelined Ben Croft, who clearly hasn’t yet recovered from shoulder surgery in May of 2015, the top 8 has definitely been shaken and stirred, resulting in a recipe for sensational matches in both the round of 16s and quarterfinals on Tour as we venture deeper into the IRT season. It’s become a Wild West shootout, with all but a handful of spots open to the most ambitious and aggressive players. How exactly have things shaken down so far? Here’s the breakdown, starting at the top…
While the Kane-Train’s dominance has become a mainstay of the Tour, it needs to be mentioned because while winning tournaments may not sound accolade bells in most fans’ minds anymore, the symphony Waselenchuk has created over the last 10 years is nothing short of legendary. Most current fans are calling him the GOAT (greatest of all time) while he still has several competitive, if not dominant, years left on Tour. While shake-ups and upsets have become increasingly common over the last couple of years, Waselenchuk has remained consistently untouchable, maintaining a level of play which at its worst is marginally higher and at its best borders on just plain unfair to the rest of the field. The only question now is how much longer he will continue to dominate before being satisfied that his legacy is untouchable.
Rocky Carson/Alvaro Beltran:
The other top two veterans of the Tour continue to impress fans with their athleticism, shot-making, and mental toughness, especially Carson, who through iron-man consistency, was able to take the top ranking from an injury riddled Waselenchuk for much of the second half of the 2014-2015 IRT Season until Waselenchuk reclaimed his crown along with the Fresno IRT Summer Kickoff Pro-am title, the last tier 1 tournament of the season. Questions raised about the longevity of these two Tour veterans seems to have been well-placed, at least on the part of Beltran who has made several early round of 16s (Novasors Ghost of Georgetown Kansas City Open, Red Swain Shootout) and quarterfinals (St. Louis Pro Racquetball Winter Rollout, New York City Open, Lewis Drug Pro/Am) exits from Tier 1 draws this season.
Meanwhile, Carson seems to have settled into an extremely successful and consistent style of play that has bested nearly all opponents (save Waselenchuk, of course). With only a couple of losses to players not named “Kane,” and semifinal or better appearances in every Tier 1/Grand Slam event so far this season, he has decisively claimed the #2 ranking, expanding his 966 point lead over Beltran from last season to 1156, and it will be extremely difficult for any in the field to catch him before year end.
The Top 6:
The fourth to sixth place spots on tour were a hotly contested and tight race last season, which saw Daniel De La Rosa, Jose Rojas, and Ben Croft finishing in order. With Croft’s shoulder injury taking him out of several draws early this season and eventually sidelining him after the 2015 UnitedHealthcare US Open, the race has crept up one spot in the rankings to include a struggling Beltran. There is now an exciting race for the #3 position, as Jose Rojas edged past De La Rosa by 73 points after the 2016 Lewis Drugs Pro-Am and currently sits a mere 45 points behind Beltran! Only time will tell, but with the way De La Rosa and Jose Rojas have been playing lately, there could very easily be a new #3 player on the IRT by season’s end.
The Top 8:
The top 8 is rounded out by mainstays as well, in the form of Jansen Allen and Marco Rojas, who finished the 2014-2015 season ranked #7 and #8 respectively, but have each gained ground due to Croft’s injury withdrawal, and
now find themselves in the #6 and #7 positions. Playing well and taking full advantage of his opportunities this season is Costa Rican National Team member Felipe Camacho, who is having his best IRT season by far in the top 8. While he has been very active internationally over the last 10 years, he has had mixed results on Tour, perennially ranked in the 20s-30s. This is clearly a breakout year for him, but with so many solid players and young up-and-comers in the ranks just behind him, it will be extremely interesting to see if he can hold this spot into the later stages of the season or whether one of the many other young and talented players will seize the opportunity and take it from him.
The Top 16:
The rest of the top 16 is a veritable cornucopia of both familiar names and new young talent, with seven players ranked in The top 16 and top 32 benefiting from The Reaching Your Dream Foundation (RYDF) at some point. At the top of the familiar names list is former top 8 player and IRT official referee Charlie Pratt at #9, less than 150 points behind Camacho and only 160 points ahead of Hawaii native and Stockton transplant, RYDF player Robbie Collins, who is enjoying the highest ranking of his career at #10. The familiar names also includes current IRT official referee Matt Majxner (#14), a sliding Croft (#15), and US Doubles Team Member and RYDF player Jose Diaz out of Stockton (#16). New to the top 16 are 2014 Junior World Champion and RYDF players Mario Mercado (#11), 2014 World Doubles Champion Sebastian Franco (#12), as well as Formula Flow entrepreneur Mauricio Zelada (#13). While some of these names may not be unfamiliar to fans, especially those who follow international events such as the Pan American Championships and World Championships, they are certainly new to the IRT’s top 16. Make no mistake though, they have earned their spots there. With wins over Beltran, De La Rosa, and Pratt so far this season, these three youngsters have proved they have the ability to play top ball and upset the established order. Whether they will be able to replicate this play consistently remains to be seen, but it is always exciting to see new talent and fresh faces knocking on the door; it can only improve the quality of the Tour.
The Top 32:
Other young talent is also knocking on the proverbial door just a little further down the rankings list, with players like Scott McClellan (#17), Troy Warigon (RYDF and #18), Brad Schopieray (#18), and US Racquetball Doubles Team Member and USA Racquetball Doubles Team member, Jake Bredenbeck (RYDF and #19) sitting just outside the top 16 having increased their Tier 1 attendance this season. Slightly further down the list are young Mexican sensations Andree Parilla (#26) and Javier Mar (#30) and RYDF athlete David Horn rounding out the top 32. Any of these players has the skill to beat the top players and break through, it will all depend on their ability to capitalize on opportunity, and commit to attending the top point garnering events (Tier 1s) for the last half of the season.
This section of the rankings, much like the top 16, contains not only new, but veteran talent as well. Players like Alejandro Herrera (#21), Tim Landeryou (#23), Cliff Swain (#24), Coby Iwaasa (#27), and Tony Carson (#31) all have the ability to beat top 16, if not top 8, players given the opportunity but various circumstances have prevented them from playing Tier 1 stops consistently and they have thus slid down the rankings. Their attendance to sporadic events makes for exciting early-round matches though and delights local fans.
There is certainly no shortage of things to be excited about this IRT season, even with Waselenchuk and Carson having more or less locked up the top 2 spots. Everywhere else you look shows similarities to the Old West, where young guns with quick hands were always trying to break through and make a name. For now, the veterans rule the roost, but this trend cannot continue forever, and as more young players establish themselves and upset the top veterans on tour, close races will creep their way up the rankings for all the top spots. It may be shorter than you think before there’s a new sheriff in town…
By Tim Landeryou
Tim Landeryou is a competitive racquetball player from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He began playing racquetball at the age of 10 and has represented Canada internationally since 2010 and achieved a career-high IRT season end ranking of 16 in 2014-15. He completed his Master of Science in Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in 2015 and now works as a sport administrator in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.