Unique to Arizona: High school badminton a growing niche in Queen Creek

The Casteel badminton team huddles up. Casteel is one of two badminton programs in Queen Creek. (Photo Courtesy of Kathi Zink)

On a cool, crisp Arizona autumn day, Scottsdale Chaparral High School is vacant for fall break except for three individuals in the school’s auxiliary gym.

Two young women face each other on a court 20 feet by 44 feet with an elevated net slicing the area in half. They volley a shuttlecock back and forth over the net, their shoes screeching on the gym floor as they sidle across the width of the gym as they play badminton.

The third, Chaparral Badminton Coach Carrie Davis, watches, occasionally giving points of criticisms and praise to sophomore Candy Fajardo, who has been playing against assistant coach Ashleigh Foltz, a previous Chaparral badminton player.

The scene is similar to many others across the state as 71 schools now have a badminton program, including Casteel and Queen Creek high schools. In 2017, a participation survey pinned the number of participants at 1,249, according to the National Federation of State High School. Arizona only offers badminton as a girls sport.

Arizona is one of seven states to have competitive badminton programs. Of those totals, only California, Illinois and New York have higher badminton participation than Arizona.

Past surveys show consistent growth since 2012. There were 55 programs with 887 participants in 2012, which then jumped to 62 programs with 1,156 participants the next year.

The jump coincides with the opening of the Arizona Badminton Center, 2150 W. Broadway Road in Mesa, in 2012. The center’s founder Guy Chadwick and former international player Hank Anderssohn have previously offered instruction for Valley coaches and players. The center offers classes, instruction and a pro shop.

Mr. Chadwick — the center’s director and club pro — said the sport’s growth is a reflection of its history in the state.
He cited the sport’s longevity, saying it’s been around at a high school level since the 1950s, and a cadre of longtime coaches for why the sport has seen such growth.

The sport’s roots draw back to Arizona State University where it had a dominant team for men and women from 1963 until 1993. Mr. Chadwick, who coached the team from 1988-93, said ASU’s team attracted top talent, which trickled down to the high school level with that talent helping the younger generation.

The growth, Mr. Chadwick said, is also a result of strong competition across the board.

“The competition Valley-wide is better every year,” he said. “It increases enthusiasm, involvement and the desire for more school districts to add this economical and valued sporting activity to their schools.”

While the numbers support growth, some schools have dropped the sport for various reasons — such as low participation.

Other challenges Mr. Chadwick sees are shared gym space with other sports, competition among sports for good athletes, finding good coaches and finding a way to get the boys involved.

Understanding of the athletic merits of the sport, he says, is improving but still have a long way to go.

Casteel High School coach Kathi Zink, a badminton newcomer, is in the midst of the sport’s first year at the school. She used the badminton center to learn the sport and how to coach it.

Badminton is a unique sport in that many of the athletes aren’t playing it competitively until their freshmen years,

Coach Davis, who has coached at Chaparral since 1989, said. Though this can be difficult, she says it is rewarding.

“Seeing a kid grow from nothing, starting from the beginning, to being a state champion,” she said. “That’s what’s so exciting about it. When you see that growth, you see their mentality change and grasping the sport itself.”

While badminton seems to have a bright horizon in Arizona high schools, playing the sport collegiately is a bit cloudy. Outside of college, however, there is Olympic and Team USA badminton.

Along with ASU cutting the sport in 1993, the NCAA removed the sport from its emerging sport list in 2009 after failing to get 40 programs. When a sport is put on the emerging list, it has a decade to reach 40 programs and graduate to full NCAA status.

Many other universities and colleges don’t offer the sport except at a club level. The California Community College Athletic Association, however, does have sanctioned women’s badminton competition.

Faced with few options to play at the collegiate level and an arduous path to reach the national team, Valley athletes are left with different takeaways from the sport.

Olivia Jones, a Casteel senior badminton player, said she would probably play leisurely in college.

“It’s actually a really fun sport to play as long as you have good sportsmanship,” she said. “I just learned to be kind to everyone and enjoy the sport.”

The Casteel badminton team competes in a match. (Photo Courtesy of Kathi Zink)

Casteel Badminton

High school badminton is fairly new in Queen Creek, given Casteel just began its team this year.

Even though the school didn’t add badminton until this year, Coach Zink said she knew it had plans for the sport since it opened in 2015.

Last year, Casteel Athletic Director Ryan Ridenour asked around the staff looking for a head badminton coach. Coach Zink volunteered.

She said she had no previous experience in coaching or playing badminton but she did have a love for sports in general, having played tennis and volleyball in high school.

“I thought this would be a great sport to do, it’s low-key, really great girls come out for badminton, quality girls go out for badminton that I knew from a history of being in high school,” she said.

After spending some time at the Badminton Center, Coach Zink’s next task was to assemble a team. She put the word out last year to measure interest and she started a club.

“Some girls were waiting for it,” she said. “They had been waiting for that to come and so they were asking in the office about it.”

Coach Zink said she had almost 40 girls interested but interest waned once the team’s allotted gym time began at 5:30 a.m. That cut participants down to about 14.

Jones was one of those who stayed. Previously, Jones had done a lot of theatre, she said, and had tried tennis for a year.

“I just wanted to try new things this year just to enjoy high school and it’s fun to enjoy different activities,” Jones said.

All of the girls were in the same boat as Coach Zink, learning the sport for the first time. Despite this obstacle, the team exceeded Coach Zink’s expectation with its performance, finishing the regular season 3-9 overall.

“It’s been a lot of fun to see them grow this year and learn how to play and win some matches,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d win any and we’ve won a few. It’s been a lot of fun growing together.”

While learning the nuances of the game, Jones said there’s a lot more to badminton than she previously thought. She described badminton as a simple sport with a lot of small technical aspects that requires “all of your attention and concentration.”

Furthermore, Jones said she enjoyed the challenge of sport. The team’s first match, a 9-0 loss to Phoenix Horizon High School, left the Colts with a lot to learn and grow from, Jones said.

“People may think that’s such a downer but for us as a team, we were very excited to just keep playing through the season,” Jones said.

Another growth Coach Zink said the team needed was learning to be competitive. This wasn’t a challenge, she said, for those who had played in other sports but for those who hadn’t played a sport consistently, there was room for growth.

Early in the season, Coach Zink had a competition where players could move up in ranking on the team but she said no one wanted to challenge because they didn’t want to be “mean” to their teammates. Coach Zink said she worked with her team on this throughout the season.

Moving forward, Coach Zink has plans to keep the sport alive and growing at Casteel.

She will continue recruiting girls out of her classes as well as host open gym sessions over the summer. She wants to start early so she can reel in a wide array of interested athletes.

“I’ve got a lot of girls excited about it,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a really strong program in the future.”

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