Gregg Sgar PFA Paddleball Player Profile #42
by Dave Siegel
There was a day in the Sgarlata family history that will live forever. It happened in November, 2018, Caloosa Park, Florida where three generations of true paddleball players “had” a game of paddleball on a “Court of Dreams.” Sonny Sgarlata, the patriarch, now in his late eighties, living in Boynton Beach, was coaxed out of paddleball retirement for a day by his visiting grandson Gregg Sgar. Sonny was a Rockland County paddleball stalwart from way back, known for his excellent placement and right corner shot. Twenty three year old Gregg had just started out in paddleball, a decision he made to honor the family paddleball tradition in hopes of getting his Dad, Gregg Sr., a top competitive player from the 90s, back into the game. The bonding between Grandpa Sonny and Gregg was enormous, but then a surprise visitor showed up, none other than Dad. They realized they had a great thing going and needed a family fourth to join them on the court and were able to get hard hitting Uncle Rich Sgarlata, Gregg Sr.’s brother, another retired player, now also a Floridian. It was truly a momentous day as the whole park stopped their games to watch this Sgarlata foursome have a tearjerking historical game for the ages on the “Court of Dreams!”
It looks like Gregg made a wise decision to take up paddleball. There haven’t been many players without a background of court-based racquet sports or handball that have first started playing our sport at the relatively “old” age 23 and in three short years were able to emerge among the best in the game. The sports he played prior to paddleball were baseball, soccer and table tennis. Is it pure athletic ability, which Gregg surely has an abundance of, or is it the paddleball gene? Greg thinks it could be the gene from Dad and Grandpa, though he showed how grounded he is by noting that the standard for “top” players has dropped from paddleball’s heyday, which obviously it has, considering the paucity of players in their athletic prime now compared to then. One thing for sure, the sport of paddleball needs more young and dedicated players like Gregg for it to flourish in the future. That’s why cultivating our youth is a prime focus of Mike and the PFA!
Gregg Sgar plays a mean game of paddleball. In baseball, they talk about a five-tool player. In paddles, I haven’t heard this criteria used, but he has all the tools: speed and defense enabling him to make great gets, placement, consistency, smarts and power (although he says his game is not power based, but he “uses his body to create offensive put-away opportunities.”) Let’s add one more tool: sportsmanship. He is the winner of last year’s Chris Lecakes Male Sportsmanship Award for showing respect for his opponents and always playing fairly with integrity and class, a well-deserved award that I’m sure he’s proud of. Back to Gregg’s game, his favorite shot playing the left side is passing his opponent down the left line to the left of his body, obviously very risky because there is no room for error and is often most unexpected. He’s on the courts one to three times a week, primarily at O’Conner Memorial Park, his paddleball home in West Orange, NJ. Gregg plays both classic and big ball, but after starting out with the small ball, he quickly realized that “big ball is the game for me.”
You may have noticed that Gregg has a regular partner in mixed doubles, Ariana Rodriguez, one of the best of the women players in the game today. Is she his significant other? Yes she is! And Gregg considers it awesome that they play together and they even get along on the court, though he says she tears into him in private when he messes up. From personal experience, playing paddleball with your significant other is definitely a challenge. Good luck to Team Ariana and Gregg! They recently won the Paddlemania IV mixed doubles tournament, a huge milestone for them.
In his real life, Gregg, born and raised in Roseland, NJ, is an accomplished musician, recording, producing and performing professionally, both on stage and in his home studio. He sings and plays several instruments (check him out on YouTube.) He draws from a wide range of genres, including Metal, Pop and Dance (no Doo Wop? lol!) He can be seen performing in various venues in NYC and heard on Sirius.
What does he think of paddleball, the sport? Gregg says it is the greatest sport he ever played and wished he had started sooner. He lauds the loyalty of the paddleball community and sees a “hidden energy that I’ve never experienced anywhere else in my life.” Gregg appreciates what the PFA is doing, thinks improvement can be made with better sportsmanship, reputable sponsors and better reffing. His favorite sport is paddleball (first person to give this answer.) His sports role model is, you guessed it, none other than his Dad, Gregg Sgarlata.
Finally, I asked Gregg Sgar my most important question: “What’s with the “g”? Wasn’t your Dad originally Scarlata? “Sg” is certainly an unusual combination of letters to start a word or name. Gregg says it was always Sgarlata, but no one seemed to know how to spell it. Asked and answered!
Carmen “Suly” Ruiz PFA Paddleball Player Profile #43 by Dave Siegel & Mike Melendez
It takes a special person to be a hero… and an even more special one to earn it every day. In the paddleball community, we have people who have put their lives on the line for their country by serving in the armed forces; we have police and fire fighters whose job is to protect us from harm while placing themselves at high risk. There are individuals that have stepped up for people in crisis and saved lives by performing emergency CPR and we even have a hero that performed rescues during the last destructive hurricane. There is one person amongst us who is heroic virtually every day, does it for a living, earning and re-earning the exalted status of life-saving hero: Carmen “Suly” Ruiz, who has been an EMT with the New York Fire Department for the past 14 years, is that “shero.” She tells us: “Saving someone’s life is a very positive thing… It feels amazing… especially when you see a person you saved a few months later and they come up to you to thank you and they’re crying, saying if it wasn’t for me they wouldn’t be alive.” Originally a handball player, Suly has twice been named the Wallball Player of the Week (2013 and 2017), not as much for her amazing handball prowess, but for her “sheroism.” You can read about her life as an EMT and standout handball player at: https://wallballworld.com/player-of-the-week-suly-and-christine/ and https://wallballworld.com/player-of-the-week-25/.
Suly was born and raised in the north side of the Bronx. Her sports career started at the age of nine when her handball-playing brothers introduced her to their game. She quickly gravitated to handball, learning from her brothers, while spending long hours practicing and perfecting her skills at the local schoolyard. She loved handball and her hard work paid off as she emerged as a top female player, earning her “A” card in 2013. However, handball is physically a very demanding game and, due to a few injuries she had incurred, it became difficult for her to maintain this high level.
Then along came paddleball! It all started in February, 2017 when Kathy Guinan asked her to play in an open mixed-doubles tournament. Being a top rated handball player and intrigued by the paddleball game, she accepted the challenge. With virtually no experience in paddleball, Suly did pretty well and she liked the way the game felt. She also appreciated that it was easier on her body. From that moment on, Suly was hooked on the sport of paddleball! That Paddleball Mixed Doubles Tournament at Zerega Indoor changed everything. She stopped playing handball to focus on improving her paddleball game. Like in her early days of handball, she spent long hours on the paddleball courts toiling away to improve her game. In less than two years, her hard work plus handball experience and incredible athleticism helped her rise to the top echelon of the women’s game. She became a force to be reckoned with! “I love this sport!”
Suly presently plays 2-3 times per week at Zerega during the winter season and at Colucci/Castle Hill parks in the summer. She is one of the best right-side righty players in the women’s game today. We asked her to describe her game, “I like to shoot, but I consider myself to be a smart player. I know where the ball should go, now if I can just get it there all the time… lol.” Yes, Suly rarely makes an unforced error, is a supreme defensive player and almost always hits the ball to the right spot. She makes incredible gets, has a good left hand and has deadly put-aways, especially killers in the left corner, which is her favorite shot. Suly thrives on the competition and plays with that never-give-up attitude, while always playing fair and almost never arguing. Suly’s favorite paddleball tournament division is Mixed Doubles and she loves to compete against the male players and indeed she certainly holds her own. She is well liked in the paddleball community and thoroughly enjoys the camaraderie of the players.
She told us that the PFA is doing a great job (thanks!) and her advice to grow the sport is to strive for more unity plus holding more tournaments would help as well. Her advice to her paddleball peers? “Let’s play to win but remember to have fun.” You can’t beat that!
What about the non-paddleball, non-EMT life of Suly? She is the mother of three kids, including the beautiful Jazzy who has attended the PFA’s paddleball clinics and has become one of the game’s future stars. Her sports hero? After some very careful thought, “I would have to say my boo Allan Sanchez.” Something most paddleball players may not know about Suly is that she is terrified of water bugs and easily cries at sad movies. Her favorite foods are pork chops and steak.
Suly would like to say thank-you to the paddleball family for accepting her and being so kind… “You guys rock!!!” Thank-you Suly for being one of the outstanding people of paddleball, and for your dedicated service to saving lives!
Suly, #YouGotNext !
Maria Serrano – PFA Paddleball Player Profile No 42 By Dave Siegel
Maria Serrano is now making paddleball history. Not only is she the first player to have a profile written about her by the PFA, she is the first to earn a profile “do-over.” In her first mini-bio we learned that she is a top female righty player from Far Rockaway with a great attitude, supports and loves the sport and always smiles. Since this landmark profile, the program has evolved and now there is so much more the paddleball community craves to know about Maria. When the people demand, the PFA delivers. Here is Maria Serrano II:
It all started a long time ago when ten-year-old Maria was summer vacationing with her older brother Frankie in Woodmere. She followed him everywhere, including to the paddleball courts where he played, and she got to see The Game for the first time. It was love at first sight! He played with that famous heavy piece of lumber, known as the “Black Beauty” and Maria took it home with her. She started playing with it at the Rockaway Beach playground across the street from where she lived. She just kept going and going and her game quickly developed. It was the late 90’s and she could not be pried away from the courts, playing nearly every day during this booming time for paddleball. She soon became one of the top woman players in the game.
She competed with and learned from some of the best players in paddleball including Andre Hopkins (Hoppy) and George (The Hammer). The latter helped her greatly in developing her game. Because of this exposure to excellent players, she is never afraid to get on the court with anyone. Maria is very energetic and is a fierce competitor. She loves the low shots, her best is the short-hop left corner roller, which has earned her the moniker the “Low Shot Killer.” Maria also uses her intelligence on the court. She says “It’s not about who’s the best, it’s about playing smart and thinking where to place the ball.” It’s also noteworthy that unlike most of the woman players of today who opt for big-blue, Maria regularly plays small-ball paddleball. During the indoor season, she is a semi-regular at the HES in Brooklyn, competing and holding her own with mostly very good men players. She is known for playing steady, her two good hands and her ability to hang in against hard-hitting offensive players. She knows when it’s the right time to go for her shot and she usually makes it. Win or lose, because of her high level of play, constant smile and good sportspersonship , everyone has a good time in her games.
As you might suspect, Maria has a high regard for the sport of paddleball and certainly does her part to promote the game. She is very well liked amongst her peers and this has helped her become a paddleball leader at Rockaway, coordinating PowPows and tournaments. Mike Melendez calls her the Rockaway Queen!
Maria would love to see the sport grow and feels that one of the important ways is to welcome anyone who shows an interest in the game. She encourages her peers to play with them and to be patient. She especially looks to recruit handball players, telling everyone she sees to try the paddle and literally puts it in their hand. She says that is often all it takes. “They will never put it down.” Also, her outcry is to get the kids involved, get them off the electronic games and into paddleball. And of course, more sponsors are needed, which will certainly help create excitement. We asked her who is her favorite player, and though she didn’t single out anyone, she highlighted Anita Maldonado, Kathy Guinan, Robert Sostre and Mike M. as players she loves watching. As a testament to how much Maria loves the game, she is the only person in this profile program who, when asked if there is anything they would change about the game, simply said, “No.”
Maria has three children, ages 28, 26 and 25, none of whom play paddleball. Her son though, gets great pleasure when Mom comes home with paddleball trophies. One such trophy was won last year at the second Annual PFA Big Ball Mixed Doubles tournament where she and Mike placed third. She also has won or placed in Bethpage, Juniper Park, Van Cortlandt, and Bay 8th. Her three siblings, Eddie, Bianca and Frankie all played the game back in the 70’s. Frankie Soto, nicknamed Papo, who we mentioned introduced her to the game, sadly has passed away. She knows he would be proud of her now. Her husband Ruben was into motor sports when he wasn’t working hard to support the family (while Maria played ball, LOL). She says that despite him hardly playing, she could never ever beat him! She thinks it may be because she sometimes bested him in dirt bike races and he just couldn’t allow his high school sweetheart to beat him in paddleball too. Maria also plays handball, volleyball and, by her own account, can bowl a mean game. Her sports hero is (of course) Serena Williams, a woman who possesses the same fiery competitive spirit as Maria.
Well there you have it, Maria Serrano II. Coming up next year (maybe): Maria Serrano III.
Isabel Ruiz PFA Paddleball Player Profile #41 by Kim Ramos, Mike Melendez & Dave Siegel
There is no question that paddleball is in a rebirth mode, thanks largely to the emergence of women to prominent status in the sport. The ladies division is loaded with talent and is growing at a rapid pace. The competition has become fierce and these gals can really put on great games, not only against themselves but against the men as well. This is one reason that the mixed-doubles division is arguably the most popular in the game today. In the last few years, many new women players have converted to Big-Blue after honing their wall sports games in handball or racquetball. One such upstart is Isabel Ruiz. Izzy is a quiet, sweet and easygoing woman off the court, but don’t mess with her! She is a tough, fierce competitor and can play a mean game. Her on-court demeanor has earned her a very colorful nickname. If you don’t know it, you’ll have to check with Isabel or her friends to find out what it is (LOL)!
Isabel was born in Lima, Peru and moved to the United States at the age of fourteen. She grew up playing volleyball and soccer and once in the US, started out in one-wall sports playing handball in Central Park, eventually switching to paddleball. She developed a love for the small-ball game and soon teamed up in the Budweiser classic with Lourdes Lozada, one of the top players back then. They went on to play together for 20 years. Like many of the female players at the time, she shifted to racquetball, playing this game for ten years and became one of the top ladies players. In 2017 she came back to the world of Big-Blue one-wall paddleball and quickly emerged as a top woman player and it’s now her favorite sport. During the indoor season, Isabel plays 2-3 times a week at Zerega Indoor and during the warmer weather, she’s at one of her home parks: Orchard Beach or Colucci Park.
Isabel’s game has improved tremendously and anyone who has seen her play recently can see that she has the confidence to compete with the top players. She is proud of her defensive skills, while focusing on placement and consistency, trying hard not to make unforced errors. She often uses the lob, which is her favorite shot, a strategy that can be especially effective in the game of Big-Blue, though not many players use it. Isabel will go all out to make every get and most significantly, she never gives up. She recalls a recent tournament when she came from behind (1-14) and ended up winning 16-14. “Never say it’s over until the last point!” Regarding her defensive style, since she now regularly plays with the highly offensive-minded Maira Rosario-Ramos, she feels there is no reason to play an attack-style game. And speaking of attack, how about this: Last year at Rockaway Beach, she had a memorable battle with a paddleball wall when, as she ran in to retrieve the ball, the concrete wall “attacked her,” slamming into her head causing a concussion and lacerated eye. And she made the get!
Isabel doesn’t model her game after anyone, believing everyone has something unique about their game that makes them different. However, she does enjoy watching Nelson Deida play, saying he competes with great heart and leaves everything on the court. This is consistent with the advice she offers her paddleball peers, which is to always play with heart until the last point, and “Never apologize for showing your emotions on the court, as long as you don’t disrespect anyone.”
Izzy thinks the sport has come a long way from where it started, thanks in part to people like Anthony Fiorino, Liz Colon, Mike Melendez (thanks!), Kim Avena and Charlene Gilio, all of whom go out of their way to promote the game. There is nothing that Isabel would change about the game but she says that in order to grow our sport, players need to support and represent the game with respect.
Isabel’s sports hero is the former Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt (RIP). She loved her style of coaching, describing her as competitive, confident, strict and sometimes a little arrogant, but she was always there for her team no matter what the outcome of the game. Hmmm… sounds like these two ladies have a lot in common.
In addition to playing paddleball, Isabel is a pitcher in a local softball league and enjoys playing volleyball. She also loves playing cards and board games with friends and, no surprise, is as competitive there as she is playing paddleball. Her favorite foods are steak and Chinese cuisine.
Isabel would not reveal any secret talents but recently this writer (Kim) witnessed her race into action to help a fellow player who was stricken while playing at Zerega and had stopped breathing. Without hesitation, she began giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation aided by another player until paramedics arrived on the scene. Actions like this do not come as a surprise to anyone who knows Isabel – although she certainly can be a tough cookie, Isabel is a loyal friend who would do anything to help a fellow human being, friend or family in need.
Jasmine Suarez – Paddleball Player Profile No-40 by Dave Siegel
She burst on the paddleball scene just a few years ago and has certainly made a big impact. Now one of the best women players in the big blue game, Jasmine Suarez was a top racquetball player for 20 years before the paddleball bug overtook her. But her mark on the sport is felt more in her outspoken leadership in furthering the cause of the women’s game. In fact, she says the impetus for drawing her to paddleball was her desire to support female athleticism when she became aware of all the small ball events that Charlene Gilio was organizing. She has recently been in the “news” for hosting a successful small ball charity tournament at the McBurney YMCA in Manhattan and for placing second in the PFA big blue mixed-doubles tournament at Zerega Indoors in April.
Jasmine started playing wall sports during her youth in Brooklyn with handball at Bath Beach Park, eventually turning to racquetball at Lincoln Terrace Park. She really excels in racquetball and it remains her favorite. In paddleball, which she started about three years ago, Jasmine is known as a very smart strategic left-handed player with excellent anticipation and deceptive quickness. Power is not a key ingredient of her game, but defense and placement certainly are trademarks. Her signature shot is the backhand drop in front of her, which she jokes is her “butt shot” because she sticks her behind out while executing it. Jasmine plays big blue paddleball three days a week, traveling to different parks across the NYC area, but considers the McBurney “Y” her home, though Central Park is her favorite venue.
Clearly, when it comes to passion for sports, Jasmine’s number one priority is furthering the women’s movement for equality. But she is practical in her vision. While she would love to see women receive the same prizes for tournament victories as men, she understands this would not be fair if there are twice as many men’s entries as women’s, as is often the case. So her goal is to promote the participation of women to the point where they equal the men’s, so the prizes are justifiably equal. In that vein, she says the most exciting division is mixed-doubles, “where men and women all come together.” No surprise, since there must be an equal number of women and men (LOL)!
Jasmine’s passion extends beyond the women’s movement to the growth and survival of the paddleball game. She feels the number one priority is getting the youth into the fold. Bringing the game into the high schools would be great and “we need champions that are in their twenties to keep the game alive for the next generation.” She is also a proponent of a ranking system, which would allow a beginner to gain experience and move up. And she would love to see more mutual respect among tournament directors and the players by having an active forum in which all get the opportunity to voice their concerns and make suggestions. She also feels that in order for the game to reach its true potential, sponsorship is paramount. The Paddleball Family Alliance shares all these beliefs and making them a reality is what the PFA is all about.
Does Jasmine have other interests she would like to share? We got her to reveal that she loves Star Wars, the WWE, is an avid reader and, “my life is basically on social media, LOL.” She also does weight-training, has started playing squash and she loves cheesecake in “all forms and varieties.” Her all-time sports hero is Serena Williams, the GOAT! And Jasmine has a secret talent, so secret she wouldn’t tell us what it is. I guess you’ll have to ask her, but then if she tells, it won’t be a secret!
Keep up the great work Jasmine, the ladies and the game need you!
Liz Colon Paddleball Profile No-38 By Mike Melendez & Dave Siegel
In just two short years, Liz Colon has made an amazing impact on the sport of paddleball. Not only is she one of the top women players, but more importantly, she has shown a true passion for promoting the game and has big hope for its future growth. Her most visible impact is her live streaming of one-wall games on her Facebook “Liz Live” page. But her biggest contribution is as a loving, caring, helping friend to everyone she touches in the paddleball community, and the paddleball world loves Liz! Her close friend, Maritza Alicea tells us, “She is a genuine loving person with an easy smile who will help anyone who really needs it…… as long as you ask her by text, she hates talking on the phone!” So, you heard it here, text her, do not call!
Liz was born and raised in the Fordham Road/Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. She is the youngest of four children, with two brothers and a sister. As with many paddleball players, she started in handball, playing at Aqueduct Park under the tutelage of her long time mentor, Master Web. Through her hard work and passion for handball, Liz developed a strong game and became one of the best women players at Aqueduct. As we now know, Liz is driven to be the best she can be at whatever she puts her mind to. She knew that in order to move to the next level, she needed to play with stiffer competition. So she packed her bag and went out looking for better games. Her first stop was St. James Park, not far from Aqueduct, and later on to West 4th Street. Liz became an excellent player and though she didn’t compete in handball tournaments, she dished out plenty of #PowPows!
Many paddleball players transitioned from handball, but in Liz’s case, at the age of thirty, she switched from handball to racquetball. Then one day at Van Cortlandt Park, paddleball legend Robert Sostre introduced her to Big Blue paddleball, which Liz took an immediate liking to. But Big Blue games were hard to find, so she tried small-ball for a year, playing in a regular indoor game with a great group of ladies. Then the racquetball boom came along and her small-ball paddleball ceased as she joined the racquetball wave.
Liz’s paddleball story really started two years ago when she started playing it consistently at Zerega Indoor and Marathon Park and it didn’t take long for her to become one of the top women players in the game. Undoubtedly, her experience in handball and racquetball, as well as her dedication and natural athletic ability, were all important factors in her rapid ascension. She is a dynamic right-handed competitor with one of the most powerful forehands in the ladies division. Liz is like a lioness stalking her prey, patiently waiting for the perfect opportunity to attack and put her opponent on the defense. When she gets a set-up, her eyes look like they’re about to pop out of their sockets and she goes into BEAST mode on the poor ball! Her favorite shot? But of course, “Drive shot to the body. I like hitting the ball hard, it feels good! I love the sound of the ball slamming against the wall.” And like every successful athlete with the drive to rise to the top, she works hard, playing 2 to 3 times a week to improve her game. She says it’s a great workout and a great way to let off steam! How does she describe her game? “A work in progress. LOL. I’m still learning. Every time I play, I learn something new and I try to focus on improving that one thing!” Ladies of paddleball, are you listening?
Liz is not only an excellent player and a helpful, popular friend to the paddleball community, but also a very thoughtful person who has many insights about the game and how it can flourish. What does she think the sport needs for it to grow? “I have so much hope for this game and I only wish to see it continue to grow. We need more people who give of themselves selflessly to make great events and promote the game. Charlene Gilio is a great example, constantly organizing games throughout the year and coming up with fresh new ideas for events that keep people interested and wanting to come back. People like Kathy Guinan, Mike Waters and Cindy Figueroa, who always offer themselves in any capacity just for the love of the game, GENUINELY! It’s heartwarming. And of course people such as you, Mike, who dedicate their time to introducing and teaching the sport to our youth and keeping up with it.”
What advice does Liz have for her peers? “Appreciate the time that others dedicate to putting tournaments together. RESPECT the time they are taking away from their lives/families to put on these events, while looking at the bigger picture. Also players should think about not just what the event can do for you, but what your contribution and participation can do for the event. I know lots of players choose not to participate because they feel they have no chance at winning. Imagine if everyone thought that way, we’d never have tournaments! I enjoy playing and participating in whichever events I can, just to add to the pot! I’d like to see some of the Pro/A players go out of their comfort zone and pick a player whose skill level is a little less than theirs for an open tournament, just to make things interesting and give more people the opportunity to win.
Is there something she would like to change about the sport? “I’d like to make it more difficult for people who behave poorly during the events. Like with any other sport, there are immediate consequences (technical fouls accompanied by fines, suspensions, etc.), make these punishments on-the-spot and stay consistent with it so players are not so quick to argue with a ref, lines-person, spectator or each other. That type of behavior is not tolerated anywhere else and should not be tolerated here either.” This writer agrees with Liz 100% and this is something the PFA has organized with the help of other tournament directors and put in place during the past year.
Liz says the sport of paddleball is very dynamic, no two players play the same way. She loves watching and playing against all the different styles of play. But when we asked her who is her favorite player, we got more than we asked for. “OMG there’s so many. Of course Robert Sostre and his ability to pick and place almost any shot he wants. Maira Rosario-Ramos as well, she’s aggressive and can kill the ball from anywhere on the court and has excellent court awareness. My mixed partner Dave Blatt and his aggressiveness and quick hands. Carlos Espinal and his shot arsenal is ridiculous, spiking, powering the ball from anywhere on the court, it’s just insane. But my new favorite is newcomer Suly Ruiz. She’s very smart with her shot placement and has carried over her handball skills right to the paddleball side. It’s amazing how quickly she’s advanced. I’ve learned so much from each of these players and so many more.” You would think with all these paddleball greats that she marvels, one of them would be her sports hero, but no, it’s Michael Jordan. “Whenever he played I felt like I was witnessing greatness. He’s a true example of a “GIFTED” person.”
If you would like Liz to expound on these insights, or for her to help out in any way, just ask her, but don’t call her, TEXT! SHE HATES TALKING ON THE PHONE!