Coach: High school badminton has its own version of March Madness

  • Jon Cohn

    Jon Cohn

 
 
Updated 3/3/2022 8:30 AM

Amid the basketball "madness of March," which begins in full regalia this week, a different version of "March Madness" arrives this time of year.

It is called tryouts for the spring season of high school badminton. A "madness" of another sort.

 

Sound pretty tame? What could be so tumultuous about the nice, quiet game of badminton?

"Oh yeah, it can get a little crazy," says Glenbrook North head badminton coach Tiffany Kim. "Twelve courts going at a time during tryouts, and we have 30, sometimes as many as 40, 50, or even 60 girls trying out for the team."

Birdies flying, players talking, whistles blowing, courts rotating, girls communicating, echoes in the gym. It is all part of the unique craziness that goes along with badminton tryouts every year.

"The madness of march," indeed. And that is just to pick the team!

For any readers snickering at badminton as a sport, thinking of it as just a recreational backyard game, keep reading please. Believe it or not, girls badminton has among the highest numbers trying out of any sport in the entire school, including all three seasons. It's true for both GBN and GBS.

So with all those challenges and distractions and so many girls to choose from, how does a coach actually choose who makes the team?

"It isn't easy," says Glenbrook South second-year head coach Kelli Nitihara. "First of all, we will probably have to have tryouts at 6 in the morning because the basketball team is still playing, so that presents some unique challenges. Secondly, what we look for in players is attitude, coachability, potential, and the ability to play doubles, because every player -- by rule -- must play doubles in competition."

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"Also," Nitihara adds, "we don't overemphasize score in tryouts, but more technique, strategy and skill level."

Both Nitihara from South and Kim from North are alumni of the school where they coach

Kim, who also coaches the girls volleyball team, has been head coach for nine years, and she played on the Glenbrook North badminton teams during her years as a Spartan.

Counterpart Nitihara graduated from South in 2009, where she played four years of volleyball, one year of basketball, and three years on badminton for the Titans, missing one year because of a torn ACL. Nitihara made it to state in her junior year playing doubles. She was an assistant coach under longtime head coach Terri Kimura before taking over the reigns.

Personally, I love to see this. It is always great to see some of our ex-athletes come back to coach at the same school, and in the same program, in which they once played.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Kim and the Glenbrook North squad will have many battles this year for positioning who plays where, and in what spots in singles and doubles. But one spot that won't be in question is No. 1 singles.

The Spartans have one of the top players in the state returning in Jade Huang, and she will no doubt be a threat once again to make it to state and a likely contender for the medal stand.

Glenbrook South, on the other hand, does not have the one superstar, but rather the team is blessed with a quality depth of talent led by seniors Leah Dessercih and Kara Yoo, and junior Justine Liu.

Both teams begin their seasons in a couple weeks after some intense practice and training sessions.

Now let's address the skeptics out there. The backyard weekend enthusiasts who play the game recreationally and think anyone can play badminton. Are you guys still reading this? Hope so.

Actually, in one sense, you would be correct. Anyone can play this game -- but not at the high intensity required to be successful in competitive high school badminton, where it is a completely different story.

Here, the elite badminton players have to combine speed, agility, strength, flexibility, endurance, great hand/eye coordination and, definitely, quick reactions. The birdie comes at you with remarkable speed, and with the short distance between players on the smallish courts, superfast reflexes and reactions are a must.

While most of us playing the backyard game simply aim to get the birdie over the net and into the opponent's court, at the high school level the sophistication of the game is so much more. Girls must master shots such as the serve, the lift (think lob), net shots, block shots, drop shots, the clear (high and deep) and, of course, the always powerful, and crowd pleasing, smash shot.

That is a minimum of seven different skills, and they have to master each on both the forehand and backhand sides.

The skill level and mental aspect of the high school game has jumped dramatically in recent years here in the suburbs.

"There are some clubs in the Northwest suburbs that some of the kids play on, which really help with their development," says GBN coach Kim.

GBS's Nitihara adds "We ran a summer camp for badminton here last summer and had pretty good attendance, so we are hoping that helps."

Both teams will be ready for action, no doubt, in a couple of weeks.

But first ... those tryouts, and all the madness of 12 courts going all at once.

• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email jcsportsandtees@aol.com.

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