Unique to Arizona: High school badminton a growing niche in Scottsdale

The Chaparral badminton team before the Firebird Invitational. (Photo Courtesy of Chaparral Badminton)

On a cool, crisp Arizona autumn day, Chaparral High School is vacant for fall break except for three individuals in the school’s auxiliary gym.

Two young women face each other on a court 20 feet by 44 feet with an elevated net slicing the area in half. They volley a shuttlecock back and forth over the net, their shoes screeching on the gym floor as they sidle across the width of the gym as they play badminton.

The third, Chaparral Badminton Coach Carrie Davis, watches, occasionally giving points of criticisms and praise to sophomore Candy Fajardo, who has been playing against assistant coach Ashleigh Foltz, a previous Chaparral badminton player.

The scene is similar to many others across the state as 71 schools now have a badminton program. In 2017, a participation survey pinned the number of participants at 1,249, according to the National Federation of State High School. Arizona only offers badminton as a girls sport.

Midori Pham swings at the shuttlecock during a recent match for the Chaparral High School badminton team. (Photo Courtesy of Chaparral Badminton)

Arizona is one of seven states to have competitive badminton programs. Of those totals, only California, Illinois and New York have higher badminton participation than Arizona.

Past surveys show consistent growth since 2012. There were 55 programs with 887 participants in 2012, which then jumped to 62 programs with 1,156 participants the next year.

The jump coincides with the opening of the Arizona Badminton Center, 2150 W. Broadway Road in Mesa, in 2012.

The center’s founder Guy Chadwick and former international player Hank Anderssohn have previously offered instruction for Valley coaches and players. The center offers classes, instruction and a pro shop.

Mr. Chadwick — the center’s director and club pro — said the sport’s growth is a reflection of its history in the state.
He cited the sport’s longevity, saying it’s been around at a high school level since the 1950s, and a cadre of longtime coaches for why the sport has seen such growth.

The sport’s roots draw back to Arizona State University where it had a dominant team for men and women from 1963 until 1993. Mr Chadwick, who coached the team from 1988-93, said ASU’s team attracted top talent, which trickled down to the high school level with that talent helping the younger generation.

The growth, Mr. Chadwick said, is also a result of strong competition across the board.

“The competition Valley-wide is better every year,” he said. “It increases enthusiasm, involvement and the desire for more school districts to add this economical and valued sporting activity to their schools.”

While the numbers support growth, some schools have dropped the sport for various reasons — such as low participation.

Other challenges Mr. Chadwick sees are shared gym space with other sports, competition among sports for good athletes, finding good coaches and finding a way to get the boys involved.

Understanding of the athletic merits of the sport, he says, is improving but still have a long way to go.

Queen Creek Casteel High School coach Kathi Zink, a badminton newcomer, is in the midst of the sport’s first year at the school. She used the badminton center to learn the sport and how to coach it.

Badminton is a unique sport in that many of the athletes aren’t playing it competitively until their freshmen years,

Coach Davis, who has coached at Chaparral since 1989, said. Though this can be difficult, she said, it is rewarding.

“Seeing a kid grow from nothing, starting from the beginning, to being a state champion,” she said. “That’s what’s so exciting about it. When you see that growth, you see their mentality change and grasping the sport itself.”

While badminton seems to have a bright horizon in Arizona high schools, playing the sport collegiately is a bit cloudy. Outside of college, however, there is Olympic and Team USA badminton.

Along with ASU cutting the sport in 1993, the NCAA removed the sport from its emerging sport list in 2009 after failing to get 40 programs. When a sport is put on the emerging list, it has a decade to reach 40 programs and graduate to full NCAA status.

Many other universities and colleges don’t offer the sport except at a club level. The California Community College Athletic Association, however, does have sanctioned women’s badminton competition.

Faced with few options to play at the collegiate level and an arduous path to reach the national team, Valley athletes are left with different takeaways from the sport.

Olivia Jones, a Casteel senior badminton player, said she would probably play leisurely in college.

“It’s actually a really fun sport to play as long as you have good sportsmanship,” she said. “I just learned to be kind to everyone and enjoy the sport.”

Candy Fajardo reaches for the shuttlecock. (Photo Courtesy of Chaparral Badminton)

Chaparral Badminton

Along with Chaparral, Horizon and Saguaro high schools are the only other Scottsdale schools to have teams. Desert Mountain High School recently cut its program.

Stephan Cervantez, Desert Mountain athletic director, said low participation led to the decision to cut the program. He said the school would bring the program back if interest was higher.

Coach Davis has been a figure in the Scottsdale badminton landscape since 1989. During that time, she’s coached six state championships teams and numerous singles and doubles championships.

Given all that recognition, the school sometimes forgets there is a badminton team. Fajardo said she encounters students who don’t know of the sport’s existence regularly.

Still, Coach Davis has fielded a team each year and that is a result of a formula she’s concocted to attract players. She attends various P.E. classes, sometimes for an entire day, at both Chaparral and several middle schools to talk students into joining.

“Some girls try it for a season,” Coach Davis said. “But then there are girls that love it, capture it and they continue on. Hopefully the girls we continue to get, get that fire underneath them and they like it so they continue.”

There are plenty of girls, Coach Davis said, who reach varsity and then get bored with the limelight. By casting a wide net, Coach Davis believes girls are sticking to the sport.

Fajardo had plans to play volleyball but missed tryouts. That’s when she met Coach Davis, who told her to try badminton, citing how it could be a good conditioner for other sports. Fajardo was planning on trying out for basketball.

Then, badminton happened.

She fell in love with the sport, making it her main focus. What she loves most about playing was the newness of it to her.

“This sport just brought up challenges I haven’t faced in any other sport,” she said. “It was a new thing and something new I wanted to get really good at.”

Fajardo, like many others at Chaparral, needed to learn the game. She had never picked up a racket before her freshman year.

She described learning curve as “scary,” but once she started playing consistently, she felt an adrenaline rush that motivated her to keep improving.

Making varsity, Coach Davis, said is fun for the girls but she’s trying to show them there is much more than reaching the school’s top tier. She cites winning tournaments, championships and invitationals as a reward for putting in the effort to learn a new sport.

Along with pitching the sport, Coach Davis thinks the key to growth is girls seeing their improvements and craving for more.

“That’s what I’m trying to explain to the kids: as you get better, it gets more exciting because you’re hitting at a level where you can hit shots you could never hit before,” she said.

The Firebirds finished with a 5-9 overall record (3-2 in region). While this wasn’t the result Coach Davis wanted, she is still proud of what her young team — consisting of one senior and one junior — accomplished. There were four matches this season Chaparral lost by one point.

This provides an opportunity, one Coach Davis hopes her team takes advantage of the opportunity to return and improve, thus forwarding the cycle of growth she’s envisioned.

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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