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Mitchell's tennis courts attract youth, adult players during summer months

This is the shadow of Mitchell High School’s No. 1 singles player Jacob Cersosimo as he strikes a forehand during a boys tennis match earlier this year at Hitchcock Park in Mitchell. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

People of all ages in the Mitchell area are flooding to the tennis courts this summer.

The Mitchell Tennis Association has hosted "Open Court Night" every Thursday for several years during the summer months. This June, the numbers have hit an all-time high.

"We didn't have an open court until 9:30 p.m., and that probably hasn't happened before," said Chad Larson, a member of the MTA board and assistant coach for the Mitchell High School boys tennis program. "I see a lot of families out at the courts. It's reaching out to everybody and as long as you have one person to hit with on the other side, people will find good times out at the tennis court."

It's rare during the summer months that the tennis courts at Hitchcock Park in Mitchell won't be used. This weekend, the park is hosting the annual Mitchell Tennis Classic, a junior tournament that began Friday and concludes Sunday. There are 81 entrants from across South Dakota with 15 players from Mitchell competing.

Larson said there are several reasons the tennis movement in the community has grown in recent years, including the improvement of the 10-and-Under Tennis program and recent success of the Kernel boys tennis team.

The 10-and-Under Tennis program, which is a United States Tennis Association-based activity, was started three years ago in Mitchell. Brenden Lehr, who plays for the MHS boys varsity team, has helped with the program for three years, as an instructor for two years and taking over the director position this summer.

The program was originally developed to bring kids into the game by utilizing specialized equipment, shorter court dimensions and modified scoring tailored to the age and size of players. Hitchcock now has three courts with the smaller 10-and-under dimensions, which are faded green lines on a regulation-sized court.

"It seems more full this year," Lehr said. "The last couple of years, one or two lessons had a lot of kids, but this year, they're all really full. The last couple of years have gone really well."

There are 90 kids signed up for the first session of 10-and-Under Tennis this summer, with one session to go. The number is likely to reach or exceed the total from previous years, said former director Tyler Osterloo.

In its first year of the program in Mitchell in 2012, there were 105 kids involved in the program. In 2013, there was a 38 percent increase in participants with 145 kids out.

Along with many adults in the Mitchell area, Ryan and Kelly Tupper put rackets in their kids' hands at an early age. All three of their children -- Max, 12, Mya, 9, and McCoy, 6 -- play the sport on their "smaller" tennis court at their home and take private lessons during the summer.

"Tennis is a lifelong sport and it's good to have them active," Ryan said, adding his kids play on their private court four to five times a week.

Next year, Max will be a seventh-grader and old enough to play for the Kernels in the spring.

"There's a great group of coaches in the area that are very passionate about tennis and are driving the numbers of the program," Ryan said.

Adam Loes, 14, who is entering his freshman year at Mitchell High School, was recruited by coach Pat Moller.

"I started two years ago," said Loes, who is competing in the classic this weekend. "Mr. Moller got me into it during math class, actually. It seemed like fun to try a new sport. I like coming out here and hitting a tennis ball. I don't know how that seems like fun but it is."

Loes said he's motivated by the second-place finish of the Kernel boys tennis team in May and wants to continue that new, winning tradition.

"It makes us want to be like them and be better," Loes said, adding he plays three hours a day in the summer. "I play a lot. If I have time, I come out here."

This year's high school boys tennis team had 37 kids on the roster, which is the most since Larson started coaching in the 2004-05 season. The girls team had 22 out for the sport in the fall.

Larson said most of the middle and high school players "live at the courts" in the summer.

"I have some kids putting more than 200 hours in from May to August," he said. "It makes me excited to be involved with this sport. I like to see the kids improve and carry it forward."

Larson expects over 40 kids to be out for boys tennis in the 2015 season, adding there are kids with little to no experience who come out every year.

"There are a lot of kids who are in high school that have decided to come out or come back to tennis," he said. "We're going to need some more space if this keeps up."

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.