LOCAL HIGH school tennis stars Kelly Brown and Jordan Freedman bypassed their senior year of high school league play in recent years.
They did this to practice and compete in local, state, regional and national competition that often conflicted with high school practice and play. In addition, they didn't think high school competition was helping their game.
At the other end of the spectrum, Dena Baritot and T.J. Klier, No. 1 players at Orchard Park and Nichols, respectively, opted to play for their schools even though they usually win most of their matches by lopsided scores.
Which is better for the high school player who can totally overwhelm his or her league opponents?
Tom LaPenna is the executive tennis director of the Village Glen. He also coaches Brown, the area's No. 1 women's player.
"When you have the talent that Kelly has, the only reason to play in high school competition is to go to the sectionals and state tournament," he said. "However, Kelly has already won those. Playing in high school competition would hurt her game.
"I can see competing in league play if the whole team went to the sectionals and the state championships. But, it's only individuals that go. Most of the top high school players only play in hopes that they can reach the sectionals and then the states."
Terry McMahon is the coach of Orchard Park's boys and girls tennis teams. They have compiled one of the outstanding records in Western New York history. He is a proponent of high school tennis and disagrees with LaPenna.
"The girls only play high school tennis in September and October. The boys only play in April and May," McMahon said. "I feel that each player gains a lot, regardless of their level of play, by being part of a team. Dena Baritot, our No. 1 girls' singles player, adds a lot to our team. She's well thought of in Orchard Park. She's also looked up to by other team members. She can still play good competition. At the same time, it also gives the other girls on our team a chance to compete against her."
"Some of the top girls like Kelly and Dena have been playing high school tennis since they've been in seventh grade, playing on the same team as juniors and seniors," LaPenna added. "From a social standpoint this isn't good. Seventh graders shouldn't be playing in place of high school kids. High school sports were designed for high school kids, not younger kids.
"Older kids on the team usually look down at the younger kids. There could also be jealousy over positions that are taken by a seventh or eighth grader that a junior or senior might have had."
Counters McMahon: "Seventh graders are 12 to 13 years old. We've instilled a team concept at Orchard Park. The older kids are like big brothers or sisters to the younger kids. The younger ones will remember how well they were treated by the older kids. When they become a junior, like Dena Baritot, they'll still help and play with the younger kids. That's what a team concept is all about."
LaPenna thinks playing high school tennis for a player with the skills of Brown is only detrimental. He says playing tournaments and practicing against competition away from high school not only helps Brown's game, but also allows her to compile a tournament record that helped her attain a scholarship. Brown received a full scholarship to the University of Kentucky.
McMahon says a player such as Brown or Baritot enhances her chances for a Division I scholarship by being part of the team. He thinks this shows he or she is a team player, wants to be part of the school's program and gets along with players at all levels.
How do top players and their parents feel about playing high school tennis?
"I don't have any regrets at all about not playing my senior year," Brown said. "After winning the sectionals and states last year, I felt that I would be able to get better competition my senior year by practicing at the Village Glen and playing in a lot of tournaments."
Frank Baritot, Dena's father, said, "Both my wife and I wanted Dena to play high school competition throughout her high school career. She started as a seventh grader on the team and has a commitment to the school and the program. She's a much better person for playing for the school. Orchard Park has a well disciplined and well thought of tennis program. In addition, college coaches are thrilled that she's a team player."
"I've really enjoyed playing high school tennis," Dena said. "It really gives you a feeling that you really belong and are part of the team and the school."
Said Mary Klier, T.J.'s mother, "My husband and I are thrilled that T.J.'s playing high school tennis. He's part of a team, shows school spirit and has an excellent coach in George Kloepfer."
"Being part of any varsity team is an honor and a privilege," added T.J.
Todd Miller, head pro at Amherst Hills Tennis Club, sums up the situation well.
"I have worked with Jay Udwadia, Freedman and up-and-coming star Karl Sloss," he said. "Although I wasn't 100 percent thrilled that Jordan didn't want to play high school tennis his senior year, I respected his decision. However, each case is different. There are advantages and disadvantages of playing on a team for the top player. There's also a lot of mixed emotions involved. Each player should carefully discuss the situation with his parents, and in some cases, his coach before making any final decisions."