North Carolina is home to some of the nation’s top junior players. According to Tennis Recruiting Network, North Carolina is home to four of the top 100 players in the class of 2016 for both boys and girls. That’s a huge statement for the state’s tennis landscape.
While we often see these juniors battling each other on the court, there are a few times a year where they get together to become teammates and friends. Team North Carolina, a program run by USTA North Carolina that provides training opportunities to junior players throughout their young careers, embraces the team concept and seeks to take some of the state’s best to new heights.
Team North Carolina traveled to Lupton City, Tenn., last month for the 2015 Southern Junior Cup. This tournament, featuring juniors 14s-18s, brings the nine states in the Southern section together for a weekend-long competition, ultimately crowning one state’s junior team as the best in the South.
After reaching the Gold flight of the tournament (which features the top three teams after initial round-robin play), Team North Carolina defeated South Carolina 16-10 to pull within one match of a Southern Cup title. Nine matches in the final meeting with Georgia went to tiebreaks, and while Team North Carolina fell just short of victory, the team still captured their second silver medal in the past three years.
But Team North Carolina is more than just a weekend in Tennessee. The program enrolls players at an early age, developing 10 & under juniors and building their skills through competitive training. Camps are held several times each year for 8s-10s, 12-14s and 14s-18s. Ideally a player would start as an 8 & under junior and work his/her through the formative years, eventually competing with the 14s-18s squad.
“It’s attractive for them because they get to be on a team. The sport is so individualized and they play each other so much, it’s always good for them to get together and be friends on the court,” said Shane Wells, Tennis Director at North Hills Club and one of the coaches for Team North Carolina. “It’s really about building a good culture and making them all a part of a team. There are a lot of positives for this camp.”
Wells has been assisting with coaching Team North Carolina since the program’s inception. Dan Holman, Director of Junior Player Development & Tournament Tennis, was instrumental in creating the Team North Carolina concept, and he has relied on coaches like Wells to push juniors to the next level.
“When Dan came on and they approached me about doing this, I was all in, but we kind of had to change the culture. It’s really about building a good culture and making them all a part of a team. There are a lot of positives for this camp,” Wells said. “This is for us to practice and get better as a team. The goal for me is to provide them structure, play some mixed doubles, and this helps us figure out teams for Southern Cup. It always comes down to doubles points. They play a ton of singles. They’re good at singles. That’s why they’re here. We’re not here to change grips and strokes.”
Every year at the end of August, Team North Carolina hosts a camp for the 14s-18s team at Wake Forest Indoor Tennis Center. The juniors are exposed to a collegiate facility, and they have the opportunity to watch the singles final of the Winston-Salem Open. At this camp you’ll typically find multiple juniors who are being recruited by major college programs across the nation.
Sammi Smith, a senior at Panther Creek High School, will be playing for Penn State next fall. She’s been a part of Team North Carolina for five years, and she’s witnessed firsthand the benefits from the program.
“It’s like team bonding. You don’t play a lot of mixed doubles normally, so it can be awkward. It’s good to have this camp,” Smith said. “It’s just a fun weekend of tennis. A lot of us train together. We’re all pretty close.”
Bennett Crane, another senior who plays for Reynolds High School, recently committed to Indiana. Crane has been another staple of Team North Carolina for half a decade.
“I love the team competition. It’s awesome,” Crane said. “When you’re on a team, it makes you want to play harder and win for your team. It makes you want the win that much more.”
Playing in a team atmosphere provides experience some of these players will take with them to college. Nick Stachowiak, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation in the class of 2016, didn’t lose a single match at the 2015 Southern Junior Cup. Stachowiak, who is verbally committed to Duke, continues to excel in team competitions every year. Team North Carolina is a unique source of competition for one of the best players in the nation.
Team NC’s ultimate goal is to take first place at the Southern Junior Cup, but the camps and trainings each year offer much more than a shot at gold. It’s an atmosphere built to help North Carolina Juniors thrive.
Team NC finishes second at Southern Junior Cup