2019 Little Rock Hopes

By Michael Lauro, Jr. | March 06, 2019, 12:14 a.m. (ET)

Camp & Tournament Report - 2019 USATT Hopes Camp and Qualifying Tournament on February 22-24, 2019 in Little Rock, Arkansas at the Little Rock Table Tennis Club.

The Little Rock Table Tennis Club (LRTTC) is excited to provide this camp and tournament report for the 2019 USATT Hopes Camp and Qualifying Tournament on February 22-24, 2019 in Little Rock, Arkansas at LRTTC in the Jim Dailey Fitness and Aquatic Center which is managed by the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department.

This weekend marked the first time in Arkansas table tennis history that a USATT Hopes camp and qualifying tournament came to our state.  It also celebrates the first time that a young female player from Arkansas qualified to attend the next Hopes stage, the USATT Hopes Week and Challenge in April in Sacramento, California.  Congratulations to Alanis Hamilton on this well deserved accomplishment!

I would like to specifically thank my fellow LRTTC directors on the board for their help late last year with the submission of our proposal to USATT to host the camp here in Little Rock, and for the preparations and set up to make this weekend a success! Thank you:  Charlie Brooks, Olaf Hoerschelmann, Kedar Jambhekar, and Jeff Pratt! We can build on this experience to engage more youth and families in the sport and to increase opportunities for players of all ages, skill levels, and abilities to enjoy the benefits of table tennis in Arkansas.  Thanks also to the LRTTC players who helped with set up on Friday and take down on Sunday.

We also specifically recognize the management and staff at the Jim Dailey Fitness and Aquatic Center for working with us throughout the year and during the Hopes weekend to support table tennis activities.  Thank You: Josh Mayes; Lee Couch, III; Avy Martin; Harrison Cush; DeWayne Graves; Ms. Dunbar; Amber Davis; Simon Johnson; LeWanna Jones; Angela Moore; Pam Moore; and Michael Washington. The fitness center is a first class facility with friendly and helpful staff, and we are happy to be associated with it.

There were also a number of individuals and local businesses who donated funds to help us with the costs and expenses of the camp and tournament.  We wish to give a special thank you to the following donors: American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (Arkansas chapter), ARKTTA, Bob Smithey State Farm Insurance Agency, Marguerite Cheung, Ricardo Criado, Shivkumar Jha, Edward Henkel and Stuttgart Animal Clinic, Stewart Lee, Parmod Nelluri, John Smithey, Shelby Barone, Dale Allen and DeGray Lake Cottages, Gen Wealth Financial Advisors, Ben Phillips, David Brooks, Siva Soora, Mark Taylor, Marcus Vowell, Erica Bilello, Andrea Zekis, and Richelle Brittain.

We also want to thank our equipment sponsors, Paddle Palace (paddlepalace.com) and JOOLA (joolausa.com).  Both companies have supported our club and efforts to make this Hopes weekend a fun and memorable one for all of the families.  The Arkansas Table Tennis Academy (ARKTTA) co-sponsored the event and worked with LRTTC to support the weekend of activities. ARKTTA and JOOLA provided JOOLA Magic ABS plastic training balls for the Friday and Saturday training sessions.  Paddle Palace provided Nittaku 3-star Premium Plastic Balls for the Hopes tournament on Sunday.

ARKTTA provided drawstring swag bags packed with goodies for the young players, including Paddle Palace gift certificates, cleaning sponges and spray bottles, and hand sanitizer.  Paddle Palace donated water bottles and JOOLA pitched in sunglasses, scarves, keychains, hats, and paddle wipes. The Little Rock Visitor and Convention Bureau (www.littlerock.com) provided city attraction guides, mini first aid kits, and collapsible frisbees.


The 2019 Little Rock Hopes training camp weekend was led by Coach Joerg Bitzigeio, USATT High Performance Director.  Assisting him were myself (Mike Lauro), and USATT National Coach Russ Hamilton of Bentonville, Arkansas. It was an honor for all of us to spend the weekend coaching and developing relationships with 14 young players ages 8 to 15 and their parents.  Six states were represented: Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.

The players included the following girls:  Alanis Hamilton (Bentonville, AR), Enya Hamilton (Bentonville, AR), Medha Krishna (Marietta, GA), and Rachel Wang (Cary, NC); and the following boys:  Zachary Jaworowski (10, Glendale, NY), Aryan Jha (11, Lexington, MA), Nathan Lim Mishra (13, Little Rock, AR), Alex Piech (Rogers, AR), Jason Piech (Rogers, AR), Hasan Saidov (Staten Island, NY), Hasan Saidov (Staten Island, NY), Aaron Tran (15, Little Rock, AR), Andy Wang (12, Katy, TX), and Jadon Yuan (10, Plano, TX).

Friday consisted of a two hour afternoon training session, dinner, and a two hour evening training session.  The Saturday schedule included a morning training session of two and a half hours, lunch, and an afternoon training session of two and a half hours.  Everyone enjoyed a relaxing evening on Saturday to do their own things and prepare for the Hopes Boys and Hopes Girls qualifying tournament on Sunday morning.

The Sunday sanctioned tournament included two singles events, one for Hopes Boys and one for Hopes Girls.  The Hopes Girls event consisted of one final round robin with four players. The Hopes Boys event consisted of a preliminary round robin of two groups of four players each, with the top 2 advancing from each group to a crossover semifinal.  The winners of the semifinals competed for an invitation to the Hopes Week and Challenge in Sacrament, California in April, while the other two semifinalists competed in a playoff for third and fourth place.

At the beginning of the first training session on Friday, the introductory remarks from USATT High Performance Director Joerg Bitzigeio to the players, Joerg informed the players that it was my (Coach Mike) birthday.  At Joerg's request, players and parents sang "Happy Birthday" to me. For me, this was one of the best birthdays ever. To be able to bring a Hopes camp to Arkansas and to provide a wonderful weekend experience to young players and their families is a dream come true.  After the festivities, the Friday training sessions kicked off.

The Friday afternoon session started with familiar warming up activities, such as jogging, side stepping, and cross stepping.  Ball transfer in buckets on the table with 2 players on each table allowed players to pace each other and improve their side stepping speed around the table.  Players then formed 4 teams to compete in a ball transfer in buckets relay. Two teams competed against each other and the winning team got to watch the losing team do push ups!  The training session then progressed into warming up on the table, followed by various drills to emphasize focus, consistency, and footwork.

During the dinner break, everyone was treated to gourmet pizza from local Arkansas-based restaurant U.S. Pizza Company that has sponsored tournaments at LRTTC in the past.  Everyone was hungry and the pizza was delicious. There were no leftovers!

After the dinner break, players again warmed up with a jogging routine before moving into challenging warm up activities.  Four stations were arranged, each with 5 agility cones and a team of players at each station. Teams trained their footwork skills at quickly changing directions.  Notably, the four girls (Alanis, Enya, Medha, and Rachel) were a formidable team and dominated the agility exercises. More warming up on the table and training drills included rally drills, zone practice drills using towels to cover certain areas of the table, and drills that started with service and included winners table.  The variety of drills in the evening session provided opportunities for players to train with different players and for coaches to spend time with all the players giving coaching advice and helping players with their skills during training and match-like conditions.

The Saturday morning training sessions started with a jogging warm up routine, followed by team relays to improve speed.  Players sprinted to the finish line after staring from different positions: standing still, high knee stepping while facing the opposite direction of the finish line, side stepping, and in a prone position on the floor.  Team relays in which players sprinted across four courts while having to touch each table and return to the starting position provided additional challenges for players to work on changing directions and teamwork. Preliminary rallying drills led into match-like drills with towels again covering certain zones and players serving and attempting to score points while keeping the ball in the zones.  After this, the smashing and lobbing practice gave players a chance to showcase their talents in dramatic fashion!

Afternoon lunch consisted of a variety of sandwiches, chips, and cookies from Jimmy John's.  During the entire weekend, we also had on hand for players and parents a variety of drinks, including sports beverages for the players, as well bananas, mandarin oranges, and party trays with strawberries, grapes, cheese, veggies, and dip.  It was important for us to make sure that everyone had a variety of good food to eat and drinks to stay hydrated.

The Saturday afternoon training session started with the jogging warm up that was followed by side stepping around the table with two players per table.  Players then did the feet dribbling in the ready position while waiting for Coach Joerg to call a number that corresponds with a particular stroke. Sometimes the coach would call just one number, and sometimes all three numbers.  The next drills involved more shadow strokes and players having to mirror the stroke of their partner across the table with players taking turns leading. These are excellent drills for players to focus on footwork, transitioning between ready position and a stroke, linking strokes, and paying attention to the opponent's position.

After a break, the players came back to do match-like drills where they served two by two, but only playing to 4 points.  If a player wins 4-0, they get 2 "points in their pocket". If they win 3-1, they get 1 "point in their pocket". If the score is 2-2, neither players gets a point.  The winner of the match is the first player to 7 "points in the pocket." This drills helps the players see the importance of fighting for every point, especially early in a game.  Winners table makes sure that players get a variety of different training partners and gives them good practice for the tournament on Sunday.

After the last Saturday training session was over, the athletes and parents decided to do dinner separately and rest up for the tournament on Sunday.  However, everyone was treated to a special table tennis themed cake provided by parents Bill and Sharon Piech. The cake was decorated with a paddle, balls, net, and "Congratulations Hopes Players!" Sharon Piech reminded us that "the Hopes camp is a perfect occasion for a spectacular cake!"  Thank you Sharon picking up the food and for making sure that things were set up for everyone during the breaks.

The Hopes tournament on Sunday was the second 2-star sanctioned tournament at LRTTC this year.  Paddle Palace (paddlepalace.com) provided Nittaku 3-star premium plastic balls and PaddlePalace banners.  They have also supported ARKTTA and LRTTC over the last several years. We are proud of our relationship with Paddle Palace and hope to continue supporting each other throughout the years ahead.

The Sunday tournament included two singles events, one for Hopes Boys and one for Hopes Girls.  The Hopes Girls event consisted of one final round robin with 4 players: Alanis Hamilton (AR), Medha Krishna (GA), Rachel Wang (NC), and Enya Hamilton (AR).  Alanis Hamilton, a local player from Northwest Arkansas and the current Arkansas mixed doubles champion, won the round robin undefeated only losing 2 games. (Note:  her mixed doubles state championship is with Jason Piech!)

Highly athletic and fast-paced action between Alanis Hamilton and Rachel Wang.  Points were generally very short with both players going for the winning shot early in each point.  Match point saw both players trade backhand drives when Rachel's drive clipped the net to fall short on Alanis' side of the table.  Alanis' quick response was a lunging backhand push to Rachel's forehand. With Rachel's forehand misfiring, Alanis claimed a 3-1 victory and earned a first place Hopes finish!

The entire girls round robin was entertaining to watch.  Medha and Enya played very competitively while also enjoying the special atmosphere.  Everyone had smiles during and after the matches and they all displayed exceptional sportsmanship.

We talked to the Hamilton sisters after the weekend to get their thoughts.  Enya Hamilton said "I realized I was a youngest player at the event. Although I lost all my matches I still had a lot of fun and made new friends."  Alanis Hamilton reflected, "it was a great experience, helped me improve, and I got to make new friends. The Hopes event was an opportunity to play with and against some of the best juniors in the country while receiving national level coaching.  After winning the girls event, I was excited to learn I was invited to the TTTeam USA Hopes Week & Challenge in Sacramento, California."

The Hopes Boys event consisted of 8 players in a 2 stage event.  The players in Group 1 included: Aryan Jha (MA), Hasan Saidov (NY), Zachary Jaworowski (), and Alex Piech (AR).  The players in Group 2 included: Andy Wang (TX), Hasan Saidov (NY), Jadon Yuan (TX), Jason Piech (AR).

>Aryan Jha won group 1 dropping only 2 games in 3 matches.  Hasan Saidov finished second in group 1 to advance.

Group 2 saw a 3-way for first place between Andy Wang, Husen Saidov, and Jason Piech.  Husen clinched first place with Jason claiming second by taking 2 games from Andy despite losing the match.  What a close finish! It shows how important all games are in a round robin event.

The crossover semifinals were Aryan Jha v. Jason Piech and Hasan Saidov v. Husen Saidov.  Jason Piech, a local favorite, and current Arkansas mixed doubles champion, gave a valiant effort but was unable to fend off a determined Aryan Jha who won 3-1. The brothers Hasan and Husen battled relentlessly.  Although Hasan won 3-1, the game scores were 10, -10, 10, 10. It could have gone either way. Everyone watching the semifinal was cheering for all of the spectacular play by these talented young athletes.

The Hopes Boys final came to a showdown between Aryan Jha and Hasan Saidov.  Aryan had previously come in second in Westchester Hopes on February 10 and fourth California Hopes on February 18.  Hasan played previously in Westchester Hopes but did not advance out of the round robin group in that tournament. In this final matchup, both players were poised to claim a qualifying spot in the Hopes Week and Challenge in Sacramento during April.  This match was filled with fireworks.

At 4-4 in the first game, the crowd roared after a 18-stroke rally finally won by a smash from Hasan and a lob that Aryan could not land on the table.  Although Aryan led by several points, Hasan took the first game 11-8. The second game started with a receive by Hasan that clipped the net and landed on the table next to the net post.  As the ball fell to the floor Aryan made a diving attempt to return the ball. While he got a paddle on the ball, he wasn't able to control it onto the table. For the next several points, Aryan was clearly bothered by his right knee that hit the ground during his diving attempt on the first point.  Hasan clipped the net again in an identical way, but Aryan decided to forego the dive this time! Down 5-7 and trying to avoid going down 0-2, Aryan ended a 9-stroke rally when he returned a smash by Hasan for a winner.

Momentum carried Aryan to an 11-9 win to tie the match at 1-1.  With alternating forehand attacks, backhand punches, and solid defense, Aryan claimed a 2-1 lead with 11-4 victory in game 3.  Up 8-6 in the fourth game, Aryan played a light backspin ball low to Hasan's backhand half. Hasan stepped around and crushed a forehand smash down the line to Aryan's forehand.  Aryan reached wide and used his forehand block to put the ball back to the middle of the table where Hasan could not make a successful forehand attack. Up 9-6, Aryan pumps a fist as Hasan hits a backhand counter that clips the top of the net and flies out of play.  Up 10-6, Aryan serves and keeps the third ball backhand topspin low and deep to Hasan's backhand and raises his fist in victory as the ball sails out of play off of Hasan's paddle. With a 3-1 victory, Aryan Jha earns an invitation to the Hopes Week and Challenge. Both players played with passion, and intensity, and good sportsmanship.  Their match was a special treat for those watching.

 

After the weekend, the Piech brothers shared their thoughts about the experience.  Jason PIech said "it is really fun to be able to practice and play against the best 11 and 12 year olds in the country.  But, it is even better to make new friends." Alex said "I really liked getting coached by Jorge and Mike. They were both really helpful and gave me good advice."

Bahrillo Mahmudov, the father of Hasan and Husen Saidov, recounted "it was a great experience for the boys. They enjoyed it very much. Meeting with great coaches and training with them was rewarding."

On behalf of himself and his son Zachary, Waldemar Jaworowski told us "it was pleasure to spend a few days with you guys.  Not only good coaching and good organization, but the most important was the super super friendly and nice people. Thank You!"

Congratulations again to Alanis Hamilton and Aryan Jha on their outstanding accomplishment!  Best wishes for a good performance and rewarding experience at the Hopes Week and Challenge!

During the Saturday afternoon break, ARKTTA collaborated with JOOLA to have 6 JOOLA MIni Tables at the camp for use during break times and for a fun tournament event on Saturday called the JOOLA Mini Table Challenge.  The event was a random draw single elimination event in which all 14 camp participants competed for fun and prizes. To create the random draw, we shuffled all of the $10 Paddle Palace gift certificates issued to each of the players.  As each gift certificate was drawn and given to the player, their name was added to the draw.

  
 

 

The live stream video of the event shows just how much fun and challenging this event was.  For all of the rounds up to the finals, players used their own paddles. However, in the finals, we surprised the finalists with 2 JOOLA mini paddles that they had to use in the championship match!  Alanis Hamilton (Bentonville, Arkansas) displayed mastery of patience and control as she won all of her matches and was crowned the champion of the JOOLA Mini Table Challenge. She received a JOOLA mini paddle, 3 JOOLA Prime ABS plastic balls, and a JOOLA silver hard paddle case.  Hasan Saidov (Staten Island, NY) was the finalist who competed against Alanis. For his effort to reach the finals, he received a JOOLA mini paddle. Congratulations to Alanis and Hasan! Thank you to all the players for an entertaining event!

           

The JOOLA mini tables were very popular during the entire weekend and provided a fun way for the players, coaches and parents to interact with each other and build friendships.  Coach Joerg filmed me and Hasan practicing our mini table skills while using basketballs as paddles!

Many thanks go to my fellow LRTTC board members and club mates who helped with planning, coordinating and carrying out various tasks involved in making this Hopes event a spectacular one.  We heard from many of the parents and players that they thoroughly enjoyed their weekend at Little Rock Hopes. We received compliments on the quality of the venue, the schedule of activities, and the timeliness of the tournament events.  One family shared with us that it was their best table tennis experience ever! For this and many other reasons, we are proud to have been selected as a Hopes location this year, and we look forward to submitting a proposal for an even better Hopes weekend in Arkansas next year.

Finally, we'd like to thank USA Table Tennis for continuing to support the sport we love and to all the players, tournament officials, and volunteers without whose dedication this tournament would not have been possible.  See you all at our next event!

Sincerely,

Mike Lauro