Rising Youth Stars from a place (and with a style) you might not expect

By Ron Weber | Sept. 14, 2017, 6:48 p.m. (ET)

Danny Seemiller USA Table Tennis

RISING YOUTH STARS FROM A PLACE (AND WITH A STYLE) YOU MIGHT NOT EXPECT

We have all seen it lately.  A group of young players from a club start playing together, progress in skill and ability through top coaching, and before long, they are breaking 2000 and starting to compete with the top athletes in the game.

Marty Stoner and Dion Payne-Miller, both 14, are two examples of this phenomenon.  Both are rated above 2000 and both had a very good run at their first National Championships in Las Vegas in 2017. 

After speaking with both boys, it turns out that Dion’s little brother Dionta, only 11,  is right behind them at 1900+, having beaten both of them in recent tournaments. Two other young athletes in their club, Dominique Clark and Ronnie Coleman, are both rising 16 year old stars not far behind the other three.

So where do these boys play?  Is it one of the big California clubs? Perhaps an East Coast Club in New Jersey or Maryland?  The surprising answer is all five train at the South Bend Table Tennis Club in South Bend, Indiana.

Under the direction of former Olympic Coach and 5-time US Champion, Dan Seemiller, the boys have progressed at a rapid pace.  Dionta and Dion have been playing for 4 years, Marty for 3 years and Dominique and Ronnie for 2 1/2 years.

Another unusual fact is that 4 of the 5 players play with the “Seemiller Grip”, a way of holding the paddle made famous by their coach and his family.  Seemiller, who rose to World #19 in his prime and with brother Ricky Seemiller beat the #1 seeded Chinese team in the World Championships, started the boys with the more traditional shakehands grip. 

Dion Payne-Miller said the shakehand grip never really felt right with him and he started mimicking his coach’s grip.  “It felt more natural for me (the Seemiller grip) and I wanted to be a little different”, said Payne-Miller.  “Coach asked me how I liked it and I said it felt right, so he let me play this way and I have taken to it really well”, he added.

Seemiller sees a small resurgence in the style of play he pioneered and he thinks it might be time for the grip to make a comeback.

When asked about the grip and training, Seemiller says he leaves it for the kids to decide.  “It’s a unique style but it plays within the techniques of the game”, said Seemiller.  “Some guys can’t adjust to it, so unique can be a good way to go”, he added with a smile.

Those who have been around the sport for a while will remember that this group of young players is not the first, but actually the second, wave of highly skilled players to come out of South Bend.

“In 2007, we had the #1 male player in Mark Hazinski, the #1 junior in Joey Cochran and the #1 Cadet player, A.J. Brewer”, said Seemiller.

Hazinski was a 2 x Olympian for the U.S., has numerous titles in the US and played professionally in Sweden.  He still remains a top player, losing the National Championship finals match in 2015. He remains an active, full-time coach in Texas.

Cochran now works in Utah but remains active in the sport with a 2400 rating. 

Dan Seemiller Jr. also played at the club, making the Junior National Team in 2008 with a lifetime best rating of 2300+.  He is currently a full time coach in El Paso, Texas.  A.J. and C.J Brewer rose to the top ranks of cadets and mini cadets before stopping play to pursue other sports.

Coach Seemiller also remains active as a player, keeping his game in the 2450 - 2500 range consistently and winning numerous national championships including the men’s open doubles crown with Hazinski in 2009.

In 2018, Seemlier will be bringing the World Veteran’s Championships, the largest table tennis tournament in the world, to Las Vegas.  Working with Dave Sakai and the USATT,  he hopes the event will be an enormous success and bring renewed interest in the US’s ability to host major international events.

Though also an organizer, Seemiller will also be training hard as a participant and with a fantastic group of rising stars in his club, he has plenty of practice partners to choose from. 

“The way these kids have advanced is fantastic and it also gives me the opportunity to train hard with solid partners and prepare for the World Veterans”, said Seemiller. 

Asked about the  prospects for his young team, Seemiller said the sky is the limit if they keep training and playing.  “They are all good athletes and most importantly, good kids, “I’m excited to see where they go.  It would be nice to participate in another Olympics again as a coach, or who knows, if they keep pushing me in training, maybe as a player.”