By Lindsey Gay, special to USTA.com
CAYCE, S.C. -- Earning a trip to Nationals is no easy feat. You have to be the best in your district and eventually the best in your section before you can even think about taking the trip to the Cayce Tennis Center for the Junior Team Tennis National Championships. Then comes figuring out how you’re going to get there.
The 14U intermediate team from Hastings, Minn., quickly caught tennis fever after advancing through its section. Once in South Carolina at the 2015 Nationals, the fun didn't stop there as the squad played its way to a team spirit award and a 12th-place finish.
“We didn’t even know Nationals was [initially] a possibility,” said team member Lauren Jelley.
“No one from Hastings has ever made it before, so when we found out we went crazy,” said girls’ doubles player Amy Roach.
The team consists of nine kids, all from Hastings, who also compete at either Hastings High School or the local middle school, depending on what grade they are in.
“Even the older kids from the local high school were pulling up to watch the match,” said Hastings Blue coach Pete Zak. “The whole community has really embraced us. It’s very special.”
The Hastings Blue team won the USTA Northern Section Junior Team Tennis Intermediate crown to book its ticket to Cayce. Once its ticket was punched, Hastings relied on the help from their local community to make the trip to the finals a possibility.
“We’re a community team, so as soon as we found out we made it to Nationals, the coaches and parents put together a fundraising plan to really earn our way here [Nationals],” said Zak.
That plan included reaching out to the closely tied Hastings community to raise the funds and get the team working together. The team worked with restaurants, local businesses and hosted a “Serve-a-thon.” All in all, the team was able to raise about $9,000.
With the money raised, the team members still needed to fine tune their skills before heading to Nationals and competing against the best of the best in Junior Team Tennis.
That’s where another member of the Hastings community stepped in. Sadie Reiner, president of the Hastings Tennis Association, called nearby indoor clubs to set up matches for the team so it could practice.
“It gets super cold or it’s snowing outside in Hastings, so it’s hard to find a court,” said 14-year-old Colby Zak (pictured), who also won the individual sportsmanship award. “Sadie would call other teams and get us on indoor courts so we could play. We even went to Eau Claire, Wis., a couple of times.”
Eric Howd, 14, attributes the team’s strong work ethic at Nationals to its hometown.
“The community helps us out a lot all season so we always try and play our best for them,” he said.
In addition to the sense of accomplishment of making it to Nationals, the Hastings Blue team was excited for the opportunity to play tennis outdoors in the middle of December.
“This is perfect tennis weather, actually it’s even a little bit hot, so it’s awesome,” said Howd.
The team has also taken advantage of being able to play with kids from all of the different USTA sections.
“I’ve learned so much from talking to the different teams, it’s been a great experience,” said the younger Zak.
Win or lose, it’s clear Hastings Blue is making the most out of its inaugural trip to the National Championships.
“Making it to Nationals and actually playing here – that’s the celebration,” stated team member Carson Konrady.
No matter what, the team is leaving Cayce, S.C., with the experiences of a lifetime and hopes of returning to Cayce in 2016.