Organized middle school tennis leagues, which exist in pockets across Florida, are a labor of love for organizers.
Unlike its “older brother” — high school tennis — middle school tennis has no official state-wide program to get kids active on the courts after school in Florida.
The Gainesville Area Community Tennis Association (GACTA) has changed that in the tennis-happy college town which is the home of the former NCAA tennis champion University of Florida Gators (and state club team champion).
Currently in its fifth year, GACTA Middle School Tennis League offers middle school students from both private schools and schools in economically-challenged areas the opportunity to square off against one another, and wrap each season up at a fun season-ending championship.
The GACTA partners with the federally-funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers program to support its after-school Aces in Motion program, but has also found ways to use it to expand middle school play.
“GACTA’s success in partnering with school administrations and the 21st Century program really gave us a foothold for expanding tennis in East Gainesville,” said GACTA board member Anne Koterba, who tells how one school, Howard Bishop Middle on the east side of town, went from offering no tennis to becoming a tennis Mecca.
“We found a closet full of tennis equipment that had been locked up for years, and realized that the vast concrete expanse in the back of the school had actually been eight tennis courts at one time,” Koterba said. “So out came the old nets, up went the posts, and the program was begun. Now it’s Gainesville’s only public middle school with tennis courts. As transportation is always a problem in East Gainesville programming, having the courts right there on campus was really very helpful in getting our tennis program going there.
“In 2013, with the assistance of GACTA volunteers Addison Staples and Elizabeth Patterson, Howard Bishop was able to form a middle school tennis team, composed entirely of low-income kids. Those kids, and additional kids, formed a USTA Junior Team Tennis team, as well as played in a local Jr. Team Challenge event. We now provide regular programming at over 10 sites — all low-income, most high-crime areas — and reach over 250 students a week.”
In 2015 the 21st Century grants have shifted to an elementary school focus, and the GACTA is partnering again to provide tennis and life skills instruction, utilizing volunteers and paid teaching pros at various sites.
“It’s been a great partnership,” Koterba says of the 21st Century Learning Centers Program. “They run the overall after-school part and we come in and do the tennis and life-skill lessons. We hope that by introducing tennis to hundreds of low-income elementary school kids each year, they realize that tennis is a sport they can play. GACTA’s Aces in Motion program offers other opportunities for them to progress, so we hope that they will eventually play in a USTA event, or on a middle school or high school team. Also the grants from the USTA Florida Foundation was very helpful in helping expand our partnership and programming, and we are very grateful for that funding.”
Koterba says one key for communities looking to duplicate their efforts is a sponsoring official USTA Community Tennis Association (CTA).
“Our middle school tennis program would be really hard to do it if our CTA wasn’t sponsoring it,” Koterba says of the Gainesville Area Community Tennis Association. “All the schools want the sponsoring organization to have a liability insurance policy, which USTA provides at an affordable rate to its CTAs. And being a 501(c)(3) as well as part of USTA gives us credibility. The school district loves it because they don’t have to spend a cent on the program. Yet their middle school kids get another after-school sport. We make sure that even though it’s fee based, that every kid who wants to play can, with significantly-reduced fees for kids who are on the free or reduced lunch program.”
Melissa Montgomery, 21st Century Community Learning Centers local project director, agrees that the opportunities are changing kid’s lives.
“I think that the overall demeanor of the children has improved as a result of the structure in their day after school,” she tells the Gainesville Sun. “They’re building not only an awareness of a lot more opportunities in life, through the opportunities we provide for them, but they’re also learning how to structure themselves.”
The Gainesville Area Community Tennis Association will host its 2nd Annual Bryan Shelton Celebration of Tennis on Friday, Aug. 21 through Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015 to benefit its tennis outreach program Aces in Motion. For more info or to learn more about the GACTA go to www.gainesvilletennis.org.