ARKTTA's December Open and Review of 2019

By Mike Lauro | Jan. 15, 2020, 12:07 a.m. (ET)


As your proud and humble 2018 USATT Volunteer Coach of the Year and founder and coach at the Arkansas Table Tennis Academy (ARKTTA), I’m excited to bring you this tournament report of the ARKTTA 2019 December Open, a 2-Star USATT sanctioned tournament held in North Little Rock on December 7 and 8, 2019, and to share some impressions from our first year of serving the table tennis community.  Before diving in, we want to wish everyone a hearty and healthy New Year filled with rewarding experiences that will keep you happy for many years to come and many opportunities to enjoy the sport of table tennis that we all love so much.


One of our goals in 2019 was to host a USATT sanctioned tournament. This tournament was the first ever sanctioned tournament at ARKTTA as we celebrated our 1-year anniversary since opening in December 2018.  We aimed to provide a festive, friendly and competitive environment for players to come together and build friendships and compete for rewards. Altogether we had 24 players enter the tournament. In addition to Arkansas players from across the state, we also welcomed our competitive friends from Tennessee (Liedy Handoko, Raj and Varun Coona) and Mississippi (Perry Smith) who have always supported Arkansas tournaments for many years and given us many fond memories.  It was a pleasure to spend time with them again.


With only 3 match courts available in our modest but professional facility, it took a lot of belief, creativity, and attention to details to pull off a 2-day tournament with 3 events each day.  Eugene Atha, our steadfast and reliable regional referee, always made time to talk with me and give me advice regarding the tournament. His guidance and reassurances definitely had a positive impact on the organization and successfulness of the tournament.  We were able to keep a reasonable morning start time, offer a healthy number of competitive matches for all players, and end on time so that some players could make the 2-3 hour drive back home.


Our main sponsor, the Stuttgart Animal Clinic (Stuttgart, AR), owned and operated by compassionate veterinary doctors Edward and Mary Henkel, gave generous donations to help cover some of the tournament expenses.  Local player and business owner Sam Hemani also pitched in to help us provide lunch and sports drinks for players. Craig Krum of Omnipong was gracious with his time and took all of my phone calls to help me become more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the Omnipong software.  It takes a team effort to organize any tournament, and I’m blessed to be surrounded by passionate folks who love table tennis and who support each other.


Group photo from Saturday, December 7, 2019.


Saturday, December 7


Saturday kicked off with Open Singles Round Robin consisting of 15 players.  We had a preliminary round with 5 groups of 3 players. Everyone advanced to either Division 1, 2 or 3 round robin playoffs with each division having a giant round robin of 5 players.  Division 1 showdown for the championship was a match between current and 2-time Arkansas State Champion in Open Singles and Open Doubles (with partner Alex Piech from Rogers, AR) Ricky Criado from Jacksonville, Arkansas, and former 4-time Arkansas Open Champion Liedy Handoko from Memphis, Tennessee.  Both players competed at a high level and turned in a memorable performance. Liedy grabbed the first game 12-10. Ricky bounced back to win the second game 11-7. Both players fought hard in the third game but Ricky edged Liedy 13-11. The fourth game resulted in a comfortable win for Ricky to earn first place and the $200 cash prize.  Liedy’s fighting spirit earned him second place and $75 cash prize.


Division 2 was won by Sam Hemani from Little Rock without losing a game due to his aggressive style and solid consistency.  Perry Smith from Holly Springs, Mississippi took second place and also turned in two thrilling matches that both came down to the 5th game.  Perry outlasted Alex Piech (Rogers, AR) 11-8 in the 5th game of a match that included 2 games going to deuce, but later succumbed to Alex’s brother Jason Piech (Rogers, AR), the current junior boys state champion, 8-11 in the 5th with 1 game going to deuce.


Sheridan’s Charlie Brooks was victorious in Division 3.  Only losing 1 game, Charlie claimed first place by using his long pips backhand chop-blocking and forehand counter-attacking to control all of the matches and silence his opponents.  It’s no surprise that Charlie is also the current state champion in U3400 Doubles with partner Carlo Satierra. On the way to claiming second place in Division 3, North Little Rock’s David Willard, the current state champion in U1200, played an electric match against Kitt Oudthone (Ward, AR).  David won the first two games 15-13, 15-13 but Kitt rallied to win the third game 11-9 to stay alive. Kitt controlled the last two games 11-6, 11-8 to win the match.


Open Singles Division 1.  1st Place - Ricky Criado (right, Jacksonville, AR).  2nd Place - Liedy Handoko (left, Memphis, TN).



Open Singles Division 2.  1st Place - Sam Hemani (right, Little Rock, AR)


Open Singles Division 2.  2nd Place - Perry Smith (right, Holly Springs, MS)


Open Singles Division 3.  1st Place - Charlie Brooks (left, Sheridan, AR).  2nd Place - David Willard (right, North Little Rock, AR).


Following the Open Singles, 6 teams competed in the Open Doubles event featuring a giant round robin format.  Former Arkansas state doubles champions Jason Piech (Rogers, AR) and I (Mike Lauro, Little Rock, AR and current state champion in Mixed Doubles) joined forces hoping to continue their doubles success.  The righty-lefty pair turned in a dominant performance to earn first place while only dropping 2 games in 5 matches. With the pair’s consistent play and Jason’s orchestration of tactics, they were able to overcome the team of Liedy Handoko and Raj Coona, the number one seed team from Memphis, TN.


Open Doubles 1st Place:  Jason Piech (left, Rogers, AR) and Mike Lauro (right, Little Rock, AR)


Open Doubles 2nd Place:  Raj Coona (middle) and Liedy Handoko (right) (both from Memphis, TN)


For the third and final event of the day, five players stepped into the challenge arena for a round robin format of 1 game to 31 points using the handicap system.  The $100 first place prize was easily secured by Alex Piech, age 10, from Rogers, Arkansas who is also the current state U1600 singles champion and open doubles champion (with partner Ricky Criado).  Going undefeated 4-0, Alex fended off his brother Jason Piech, me (Mike Lauro), Sam Hemani, and David Willard without dropping a game. When asked what he would do with his winnings, Alex replied “Winning $100 was great because Nintendo Switch games aren’t free!”


31 Point Handicap Challenge Champion:  Alex Piech (right, Rogers, AR)


Sunday, December 8


Sunday’s events provided opportunities for players to battle it out in three rated singles events:  Under 2100, Under 1600 and Under 1200.  


The Under 2100 was a giant round robin of 6 players.  I’m fortunate that yours truly was able to play at a high level for all of my matches and win first place.  It’s always a challenge to play Kedar Jambhekar and Carlo Satierra because they each have particular strengths that match up well with my weaknesses and require me to maintain a high level of focus.  When it came down to Kedar and Carlo playing each other, it was a highly contested match. Carlo claimed the first game 13-11, but Kedar rallied back to win the next 2 games 11-8 and 11-9. Carlo reasserted himself in the 4th game 11-5 to force a 5th game showdown.  In the end, it was Kedar who came up with the performance to seal the win over Carlo and claim second place in the event. Carlo is also the current state champion in U3400 Doubles with partner Charlie Brooks.


Under 2100 Singles:  1st Place - Mike Lauro (right, Little Rock, AR).  2nd Place - Kedar Jambhekar (left, Little Rock, AR).


In the Under 1600 Singles, we had 9 players split into 3 groups of 3 for a preliminary round robin.  Players advanced to Division 1, 2 or 3 based on their finishing positions.  


Darius Ford from Little Rock, Arkansas (currently attending pharmacy school in Memphis, Tennessee) was able to join us during the holiday break and marched to victory in Division 1 of the Under 1600 singles.  Mucong Wang (Searcy, AR) achieved a second place finish by taking the first two games against Darius and pressuring him to mount a comeback. Facing defeat in deuce in the third game, Darius survived 12-10 to force another game.  In the last two games, Darius held steady 11-7 and 11-7. This match was packed with intensity and excitement and was a lot of fun to watch. Congratulations to both competitors on a match well played!


Division 2 of the Under 1600 was hotly contested by Charlie Brooks (Sheridan, AR), Kitt Oudthone (Ward, AR) and Olaf Hoerschelmann (Alexander, AR).  Two of the three matches went to game five and the other match went to game 4. After the dust cleared, each player had a 1-1 record resulting in a 3-way tie.  Kitt had the better win/loss record in games and triumphed with a first place finish. Charlie finished second by edging out Olaf by one game.


In Division 3 of the Under 1600, David Willard stepped up handle the matches against our tournament sponsor Edward Henkel and Eric Grunden (both Edward and Eric practice together in Stuttgart, Arkansas).  The match between Edward and Eric proved to be a battleground of intensity given the many times they have played each other in practice. This was their first meeting in a sanctioned tournament. Edward took the first game 11-7 but Eric pocketed the next two games 11-6 and 11-4 as was poised to close out the match.  But in the fourth game, Edward pulled out a 14-12 victory. In the final game, Edward outlasted Eric 11-8 to claim second place in the division. On a personal note, I have been traveling to Stuttgart every three months for the past few years to help Edward and Eric with their training long before ARKTTA was founded.  It was really encouraging and rewarding to watch them finally have an opportunity to enjoy competition at the academy. Their presence and good sportsmanship helped turn the competition into a special event.




Under 1600 Singles Division 1.  1st Place - Darius Ford (left, Little Rock, AR).  2nd Place - Mucong Wang (right, Searcy, AR).


Under 1600 Singles Division 2.  1st Place - Kitt Oudthone (Ward, AR).  2nd Place - Charlie Brooks (not pictured, Sheridan, AR).




Under 1600 Singles Division 3.  1st Place - David Willard (right, North Little Rock, AR).  2nd Place - Edward Henkel (not pictured, Stuttgart, AR).


Under 1600 Singles Division 3.  All 3 competitors: Edward Henkel (left), Eric Grunden (middle), David Willard (right).


Only 3 players battled it out in the Under 1200 giant round robin:  David Willard from North Little Rock, Edward Henkel and Eric Grunden, both from Stuttgart.  Edward and Eric play each other all the time during practice at home, and although the games were respectable, Edward edged Eric out in all three games.  The match for first place between David and Edward was electric, going the distance to 5 games. No player scored fewer than 8 points in each game. David succumbed to Edward in the first 2 games at 8-11 and 11-13.  Relying on his many hours of training at ARKTTA, David kept his cool and stayed in the match, playing one point at a time and having patience to capitalize at appropriate times. Needing to win 3 games in a row, David pulled out a spectacular come-from-behind win by claiming the last 3 games 11-8, 11-9, 11-8.  Well done David! And congratulations to Edward and Eric for always staying competitive in the matches and to all three players for fine sportsmanship.


Under 1200 Singles.  1st Place - David Willard (right, North Little Rock, AR).  2nd Place - Edward Henkel (left, Stuttgart, AR).


Thanks to everyone who helped us organize this event, to those who came out to watch and enjoy the atmosphere, and to the players who gave us many enjoyable memories on and off the court.  Personally, the highlights for me include being able to share these experiences with friends, especially the younger players. When asked for his impressions of the tournament, Jason Piech reflected, “Winning the doubles event with Mike is a memory I’ll never forget.”  It’s heartwarming to know that the feelings are mutual. 


The 24 participants in the tournament were:

Vasu Bharadwaj (Little Rock, AR)

Charlie Brooks (Sheridan, AR)

Raj Coona (Memphis, TN)

Varun Coona (Memphis, TN)

Ricky Criado (Cabot, AR)

John Falco (Benton/Bryant, AR)

Darius Ford (Little Rock, AR)

Eric Grunden (Stuttgart, AR)

Liedy Handoko (Memphis, TN)

Sam Hemani (Little Rock, AR)

Edward Henkel (Stuttgart, AR)

Olaf Hoerschelmann (Alexander, AR)

Kedar Jambhekar (Little Rock, AR)

Michael Lauro (Little Rock, AR)

Joe Lehnerd (Hot Springs Village, AR)

Caihua Mu (Memphis, TN - visiting from China)

Kitt Oudthone (Ward, AR)

Alex Piech (Rogers, AR)

Jason Piech (Rogers, AR)

Carlo Satierra (Pine Bluff, AR)

Perry Smith (Holly Springs, MS)

Mucong Wang (Searcy, AR)

David Willard (North Little Rock, AR)

Chengping Zhang (Searcy, AR)


Next USATT Sanctioned Tournament


We are looking forward to our next sanctioned tournament during the upcoming Saturday and Sunday, January 18 and 19, 2020, before the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration holiday on Monday, January 20.  Saturday will host an U3200 team event and perhaps an extra event if time allows. Sunday offers an Open Singles giant round robin and a Hardbat event to be added. To read more about our second sanctioned tournament visit the website of the Arkansas Table Tennis Academy at https://arktta.org.  To enter the tournament please register at Omnipong.com.


Experiences in 2019 Inspire the Road Ahead in 2020 at ARKTTA


As we turn our attention to the new year ahead, it gives us inspiration to look back and see how far we’ve come.  During the course of the last year, we have been involved with many exciting events and activities, such as the first ever USA Hopes camp and tournament in Little Rock in February 2019, a fundraiser to support Alanis Hamilton, the first youth player in Arkansas to qualify for USA Hopes Week camp and challenge tournament, and coaching alongside other prominent coaches at the USA Hopes Week in Sacramento, California.


This summer I started working with a local youth program called Life Skills for Youth, Inc. that serves kids ages 6 and up.  For the table tennis activities, in addition to the one table that is always set up, we set up another 2 half tables using the JOOLA Mini Connect tables (which can also be used to form one full size table) and a third table using a conversion top that sits on top of a pool table.  Because the kids are learning many table tennis skills, including how to feed multiball, the activities can accommodate up to 12 kids per session.


In October, I was able to play and experience my first international tournament at the ITTF World Veteran’s Tour in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  It was exciting to reconnect with friends and to make new ones. I had the good fortune to team up with Slawomir Gacki from Samdon Dubina’s Table Tennis Academy in Ohio and share with him a silver medal performance in the Men’s Over 40 Doubles.  I also had the privilege to spend more time with Lily Yip to learn from her, warm her up for matches, and provide some moral and coaching support during her championship match in the Women’s Over 50 in which she triumphed with a gold medal.


The ITTF World Veteran’s Tour tournament provided the inspiration to begin organizing the first of many sanctioned tournaments at the Arkansas Table Tennis Academy starting with the 2019 December Open.  Our next 2-day tournament is January 18-19, 2020 and includes a team event on Saturday and Open Singles and Hardbat events on Sunday.


The connection with Lily Yip led to an invitation to be a visiting coach and player at her premiere facility, the Lily Yip Table Tennis Center in Dunellen, New Jersey.  During my visit, I played on her club’s team at the China-U.S Friendship Cup tournament at the Westchester Table Tennis Center in New York to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Diplomatic Relations between China and the United States.  In addition to the sheer joy of participating in this event, it was a wonderful opportunity to build new friendships and to share experiences with and learn from my teammates and other players and coaches. As a visiting coach, I was able to use my own coaching skills and methods to help coach several group sessions at Lily’s week-long Christmas camp before coming home on Christmas Eve to spend time at home with family and to plan for the new year.


With more sanctioned tournaments on the horizon in 2020 at ARKTTA, we have also expanded our hours to include over 25 hours of table tennis opportunities per week.  Newly added group lessons give more value to our membership plans and are becoming popular with new and experienced players alike. With a dedication to continue growing the sport in Arkansas and  developing youth players, we recently signed up a few new beginning players to join our small youth group (ages 9 to 17). Our long term hope is that the work we are doing now with young players in Arkansas will blossom into a more robust table tennis landscape for everyone in our state and beyond.


For more details on the Arkansas Table Tennis Academy, our schedule and upcoming activities and tournaments, please head over to our website at https://arktta.org where you can also sign up for email updates to stay informed about our club.  If you are ever in the central Arkansas area and would like to stop by and play with us, please feel free to let us know.  We are happy to include you.


Best wishes for the new year,

Mike Lauro