There are over 80 schools across Illinois with a girls’ badminton team, most of them are concentrated in the more affluent areas around the state. Golder College Prep, located in a low-income community on the west side of Chicago, is the only school in the city with a team. This means that the team travels great distances to get to matches, often spending an hour or more each way on a bus.
Before she attended Golder College Prep in Chicago, Daniella Espinoza had never picked up a badminton racket. She was introduced to the sport in ninth grade by her Chemistry teacher and badminton coach, Tina Lulla. After playing for each of her four years in high school, Daniella was named a Chicago World Sports Scholar and earned a $40,0000 scholarship to the University of her choice. She now attends Eckerd College in Florida and is studying Biology. “Learning to play badminton helped me develop the discipline, focus, and grit to be successful in college,” says Espinoza. “Badminton introduced me to a sport that I can play throughout my life, and provided me with a unique activity to write about in my college applications. It definitely helped me stand out to College Admissions Officers.”
Introducing students to a sport they’ve never heard of is nothing new for Coach Tina Lulla. In 2005, just two years out of college, Lulla wanted to bring the sport that had meant so much to her in high school to her students at Clemente High School, a large district high school on the west side of Chicago. When she inquired about existing teams within Chicago Public Schools, she learned there were none. Starting from scratch, Lulla found suburban teams that were willing to play the girls from Clemente and was able to secure six games in the first year – each of which was a loss. But the girls learned a lot about teamwork, commitment, discipline, and respect, and these were the most important lessons. When Lulla began teaching at Golder College Prep in 2008, she had the desire to recreate the same team atmosphere among her students there and started the second team in the city.
Unfortunately, the Clemente team fizzled out, but the Golder team is stronger than ever. Since its formation, the Golder College Prep team has been a part of the Illinois High School Association state sectional tournament, and in 2013, they were nominated for the Sue Hinrichsen Sportsmanship Award by coaches from around the state. Also in 2013, Shannon Pohl, former USA #1 women’s singles player and 2012 USA Badminton Developmental Coach of the Year, joined the coaching staff and has helped elevate the level of the team even more. Both Lulla and Pohl hope to see Golder badminton athletes at the Illinois state tournament in the near future. They also hope to encourage the formation of more high school badminton teams in the city of Chicago. Until then, the Golder Panthers will continue to log the time, dedication, and hard work to show that a group of girls from Chicago’s west side can compete.