PFA Players Weekly Profile
Paddleball Player Profile of the week – May 15, 2017
– Home park – Far Rockaway
– Right handed player
– Loves the game of paddleball
– Big supporter of the sport
– Top female player
– Great attitude, always smiling!
We need more players like you!
Evan Šehić – PFA Weekly Player Profile of the Week – May 22, 2017
- Home – Oceanside, NY
- Powerful Right handed player
- Loves the game of paddleball, prefers Small Ball
- Lethal Left hand
- One of the top upcoming player
- Active member of the PFA Youth Paddleball Clinic program
Player Weekly Profile for May 29, 2017
Nickname Ric/Spike/Lefty, is 55 years old. He has been playing paddleball for 27 years. He started playing in Coney Island, Sea Side courts on West 5th St. He is a tough left handed player with a very good right hand. His favorite player is Robert Sostre. When ask what he thinks about the sport of paddleball his response was “The sport of paddleball is great for exercise, it’s like playing chess you got to be 2 and 3 moved ahead of your opponents. It’s a sport where all people, race, gender, age can come together and play their hearts out.” He feels that in order to grow the sport the city outdoor courts need to be repaired and new ones built. His advice to his paddleball peers is “ to be competitive but don’t take it so serious, have consideration for your partner and opponent.”
Player Weekly Profile for June 5, 2017
Ross is a right handed player that has been playing paddleball for 17 years. He is a humble and respectable player liked by the paddleball community. He developed a love for the game at an early age when his father used to take him to the park where Ross would practice by himself and sometimes hit the ball around with his Dad. He started playing paddleball at Newbridge Rd. Park/Cedar Creek Park. He sharpened his game by watching other players and then incorporating what he saw into his own game/strategy. Ross has done very well in paddleball tournaments. He has won many tournaments and finished in the top 3 in many other tournaments.
He said paddleball is a “good way of getting exercise/fresh air, meeting people, using strategy & developing new shots”. He believes that to grow the sport of paddleball we need to “Get the youth interested in playing & following the game, & somehow get more sponsors” His advice to his paddleball peers is to “Concentrate on having a good time & developing your game when playing”.
He would like to give “Thanks to all those who have done things to help keep the game alive – including A-1 & the PFA!”
Paddleball Player Profile of the week – June 11, 2017
Mark is a left handed player that started playing paddleball with his dad in the 80’s at castle hill beach club and at parks in the Morris park neighborhood in the Bronx. He prefers Small ball paddleball game. Currently his home park is Van Cortland. He usually play twice a week Saturday and Sunday and more if he get some free time during the week. His favorite paddleball shot is “the overhand spike that only Kareem Abdul Jabbar could return” He does not have a particular favorite player. He “watches those he admire live and on video and take pieces of their game and try to copy their style of play into his game”. Mark has a solid game and has placed in various tournaments.
When asked what he thinks about the sport his reply was “This sport is my addiction!. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t look at my schedule and see if there’s any way for me to get to the park and play”. He feels that in order to grow the sport it needs to be introduced to the youth and is the key for its revitalization without question. His view is 100% in line with the PFA’s view. His advice to the paddleball community is to “Keep doing what we’re doing. We should never let this game fade away..I Got Next” .
Brian Newson Weekly Player profile(6/25/17)
Brian is a left handed player that has been playing paddleball off and on since the late 70’s. He is a very humble and liked by the paddleball community. He has been working with NYC for the past 32 years. He also has been a volunteer for the past 6 years with NYC Office of Emergency Management Community Emergency Response Team(CERT). Like many of his paddleball peers he picked up the game quickly because he transitioned from handball to paddleball. He started playing paddleball on 134th Street at St. Nicholas Park in Manhattan. He then took his game to 135th street by Harlem Hospital in search of tougher competition. As his game improved he once again moved on to Lenox Avenue and 113th street in search of tougher competition. Currently his home outdoor park is Sayers and Juniper park and Zerega in the winter. He normally plays twice a week, Saturday & Sunday. In the summer he travels with his friends and fellow paddleball players Alex Cherry and Marian Quinn around the Tri-State area in search of tough competition and meet new friends. His favorite paddleball shot is the spike. He does not have a favorite player. However, he does watch and pay attention to a lot of players/games to learn and possibly incorporate a shot or a particular strategy. He loves paddleball, he said “it’s a great way to keep active, better your health (my doctor is always surprised at my heart rate) and you meet great people when you travel to different parks.”
I asked him what he thinks is needed to grow the sport? His response, “It’s great that the Paddle Family Alliance is actively engaging kids, you may want to reach out and convert current handball players”. His advice to his paddleball peers is “Just to have fun, respect each other and the calls that are being made and let your play decide the game”. He believes there is “Nothing to change about a sport that is great to play with other players who are inclusive of others no matter the skill level.”
Matthew Ramos Weekly Player profile(7/1/17)
Jay Brown – PFA Weekly Player Profile for week of 7/9/17
Jay reminds me more of a power forward basketball player instead of a paddleball player. He is a hard hitting right handed paddleball player from the Bronx with a ton of potential to become one of the sport’s elite player.
He started playing the game back in the 80s but really has been playing consistently the past 2 years. He started playing the game at the courts on P.S 86 on Riverside Drive in Manhattan and Central Park at the age of about 15 years old. He then took his game in search of tougher competition to St. James park in the Bronx.
His Mom & Dad are his favorite players, “Just watching the enjoyment of the competitiveness between them two” inspired him to compete at a high level in sports. He loves the game of paddleball, likes the hustle , the atmosphere, the different type of style of people’s games. He said the competition of the game is what attracted him to the sport, “Competition just love it..”. He has won a few tournaments the past two years including the PFA 1st Winter Open Restricted Doubles with Joey Vega. He also qualified to the PFA 1st Summer Doubles Invitational Classic at Orchard Beach.
He said “Sportsmanship goes a long way with me..” and feels is one of the things that will help grow the sport and make it more enjoyable to play. His advice to his paddleball peers? “they probably already know this “HAVE FUN”!!” He thinks the game is in good shape but reminds everyone to ” Just be fare”.
He concluded the interview with..
“WHO GOT NEXT?.. that’s all..I’m coming!!!”
You are definitely coming Jay, stay focused and keep working hard. You Got Next!
CONGRATULATION Jay Brown!
Tony Cascella – Weekly Player profile(7/16/17) by David Siegel
By now, most of you know the miraculous, heroic story of Tony Cascella, the focus of the “Welcome Back Tony” tournament held last September at Staten Island. In January, 2016 he was stricken with sudden cardiac arrest while playing paddleball in Clifton, NJ. His life was over. But Keith Jackson, Mitch Goldberg and Mitch Resnick wouldn’t allow it to happen. They brought him back using their CPR skills, assisted by a defibrillator. Today Tony is in good health, once again playing the game he loves at a high level.
Tony’s real life and paddleball career may not be as well known. He is a native Staten Islander and a retired NYPD detective. Inspired by his brother Michael, he started playing back in 1981 at Staten Island’s Egbert I.S. playground. He has played many sports, but paddleball is his first love and he has become a lifer. Tony’s athletic ability and determination have enabled him to become one of the top players in Staten Island. He is a right handed player with a deadly left who is one of the best right side righties in the game, possessing terrific angle kill shots with either hand. When teamed with a lefty, Tony is an outstanding left side player as well. He is also an excellent paddleball referee, always willing to help in tournaments.
Tony’s advice to other players is to “Play Hard, Play Fair and remember, it’s only a game!” This is exactly what we would expect from Tony, because he has always been a tough and fair competitor, while respecting his partner and opponents. It has served him well, earning him widespread admiration. Tony is also a big proponent of the PFA and the work it has done to assimilate the paddleball community and encourage the resurgence of the youth in the game.
Tony would like to thank the whole paddleball community for the countless well-wishes and support during and after his illness, with a very special thank-you to Keith, Mitch and Mitch, the heroes who saved his life. The paddleball community thanks them too! Welcome Back Tony!
Eddie Montañez – Weekly Player profile(7/31/17) By David Siegel
I guarantee that you will not find another person in the world of paddleball like Eddie Montañez. Eddie is a very talented player with amazing skills who plays the game strictly to have fun and truly does not care if he wins or loses. He is a hard hitter, fast and accurate, with terrific kill shots. But his favorite shots are his ultra-sharp cuts, which he can curve left, right and straight up and down. He also has perfected behind-the-back and through-the-legs shots. He will use these “trick” shots at any time during a rally, earning him the well deserved nickname “Sideshow.”
He started playing the game 38 years ago when he spotted his future wife, Dixie, playing paddleball in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He decided that the best way to meet her was to play in her game. It worked! He has been playing ever since, mostly twice a week, the past 13 years in Midland Beach, Staten Island.
The sports story of Eddie Montañez goes well beyond paddleball. He a great athlete and a renowned softball player. During the summer, he plays every week in the Bensonhurst Park Softball League, pitching and playing the infield. He has won multiple MVP’s, Cy Young awards, hit hundreds of homers and was inducted into the league’s Hall of Fame!
But the most outstanding part of Eddie’s life does not involve sports. He is a hero! Eddie and his family live along the beachfront in Staten Island, which was one of the hardest hit areas by Hurricane Sandy. During and after the storm, though his house was partially submerged, Eddie risked his life, along with his son Eddie, to save the lives of two trapped elderly neighbors along with their two dogs. He did this while bleeding because one of the pooches bit him! He also rescued two more people from their marooned van and lodged them in his house for several days. We are all proud of him for his bravery and caring!
But back to paddleball. I’m sure many of you were shuddering as you read about Eddie’s trick shot game, because you are competitive and want to play at 100% at all times. But who is to say that Eddie’s approach to the game is not the best one? His advice to all players: “Paddleball is a wonderful sport. Don’t take it so seriously. Have fun playing and you’ll love the game!”
Nancy McKeon Weekly Player profile(8/14/17) By David Siegel
Staten Island has a secret it has hidden from the paddleball world for decades. It’s Nancy McKeon. She is far and away the best woman paddleball player in Staten Island and every player on the Island knows it. We all believe she could compete successfully against any of the outstanding women players in the game today. Never heard of her? Well that’s understandable because Nancy almost never plays or competes off Staten Island.
Nancy has been playing paddleball for 37 years and presently plays 3-4 times/week at the Midland Beach courts. Her interest was originally sparked by her future husband, Kevin McKeon, who is also one of the top players on the Island. She is the stalwart player for the weekday Island group and also plays with the weekend group. Nancy is always competing against skilled men players and “holding her own” is a gross understatement. She is one of the best right-side righty players on Staten Island, bar none. Nancy 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 terrific left hand and has deadly put-aways, especially killers in the left corner. Nancy thrives on the competition and plays with that never-give-up attitude, while almost never arguing and always playing fair. And how about this: She uses a wooden paddle! And she plays almost exclusively small ball.
I asked Nancy if she has ever wanted to play competitively against the top players in the city to achieve recognition. She replied that she just loves paddleball, it gets her up in the morning, keeps her in shape and she enjoys the camaraderie of the players. That’s all she needs and it’s what drives her. She says she doesn’t have any desire to make a name for herself.
What about that wooden paddle? It is really a club, very heavy, completely covered with tape and get this: She has been using the same paddle for 37 years. I don’t mean the same model, but the same piece of wood! She said she tried the modern paddles, but never could find one that gave her the hit she gets with her wooden one.
Why small ball? Big ball is reputed to be the better choice for women because it’s a softer game. The answer is obvious: Small ball is the only ball that is played on the Island. She has played big ball at Garfield Park in Florida a few times and fared well. Her prowess at small ball is a further testimonial to her skill level.
Another indication of her paddleball proficiency and competitiveness is her surprising answer to my question as to whether she had ever experienced any resentment to her playing in “mens” games. She said she never had, not even way back decades ago when women were not as well accepted in men’s sports as they are today.
So there you have it. Staten Island’s Nancy McKeon. Unfortunately if you want to see her in action, or play against her, you must make the trek over the Verrazano Bridge ($17 toll unless you have EZ Pass!) But it will be well worth it!
Sal Coticelli By Dave Siegel
You all know him. He’s played in many tournaments, visited many paddleball parks (usually on his bike) and is forever posting on the Facebook paddleball groups. He is one of the best young players today, very talented and highly motivated to excel. He’s Staten Island’s Sal Coticelli or as he likes to be known, Punchball Legend.
The story of Sal’s paddleball career starts 27 years ago, when he was only 8. He grew up in Brooklyn and first took up the game at the courts of Marine Park where he fought to gain acceptance with the adult players. He managed to get into their games by age 10 and by his mid teens, he was highly competitive, eventually moving on to the courts at Coney Island. Simultaneously, he developed into a top young handball player, winning many tournaments and drawing numerous accolades, particularly in high school. It was through handball, when he developed a nasty bone bruise and could only punch the ball that the “Punchball” nickname developed. He continues to play competitive handball today. In recent years, he moved to Staten Island and is now a fixture at the Midland Beach paddleball games.
Sal works very hard honing his skills, playing or practicing often 5 days a week. He has all the tools: power, terrific low serve, foot speed, an amazing left hand (which he developed during two injuries to his right arm) and wonderful paddleball instincts. His favorite shots are the killer in the right corner and his behind-the-back left side serve, both of which I can tell you are devastating. His paddleball role model is Robert Sostre and Sal actually studies his videos to help him improve. He also displays a cool demeanor on the court, never engaging in arguments.
Sal has extreme confidence in his paddleball skills, and he surely doesn’t hide it. But there is another side to him. If you are his Facebook friend, and almost everyone in paddleball is, you saw last spring how distraught he was when his beloved golden retriever, Mariah, was ill and eventually had to be put to sleep. We all felt so bad. We learned from FB he now has a new adorable golden puppy, Mandy. Sal has also done some good work with kids, whom he recognizes represent the future of paddleball.
Sal’s persona is dominated by an incredible drive for excellence in paddleball. He pushes himself as hard as possible to achieve his goal and he has advanced his game to a very high level, but he feels there is not universal acknowledgement of this. He truly wants the paddleball world to recognize his ability and he will continue to push on until he gets there.
Mitch Goldberg by Mike Melendez & Dave Siegel
He’s a Master Chef, a gardener, a softball player, a bowler, a magician, a PFA youth program volunteer, an actor and, oh yes, he plays paddleball. It’s amazing that with all these activities, Mitch Goldberg is not only able to play 3 to 4 times a week, but is one of the top players on the circuit today. He is a rare player with many tools at his disposal, fierce and focused, excelling in tough competition.
Mitch started playing the game over 30 years ago at O’Connor Park in West Orange NJ, which is still his home park. He learned from his father, who was also a very good player during the 60’s/70’s era. His love of paddleball started the very first time he picked up a paddle and it has never waned.
Mitch’s game is comprised of awesome physical and mental skills. On the physical side, he can hurt you with formidable power, blending it with finesse, using his patented change-of-pace drop-shot killer, which is his favorite shot. He also has excellent foot speed and quickness, which is surprising for the big man that he is. Mitch is one of the few top players to use his backhand and it is very effective. He is also extremely accurate, rarely making unforced errors.
On the mental side, Mitch is very smart with his shot selection and plays like a chess player, always thinking 2-3 shots ahead. He understands the nuances of positioning and invariably is in prime position for a good shot. Plus, he has nerves of steel, always rising to the occasion under pressure.
“Rising to the occasion under pressure” applies not only to paddleball, but also to real life. Last year, in perhaps the greatest pressure situation anyone will ever encounter, Mitch, along with Keith Jackson and Mitch Resnick, heroically saved the life of fellow paddleball player Tony Cascella, employing CPR in conjunction with a defibrillator (AED).
Mitch is one of the major proponents of the PFA (he is the Vice President) and its major mission: injecting youth into the game. He backs it up by giving much of his free time to the cause. He would love to see all of paddleball under one organization, flourishing with the support of corporate sponsorship. In order to achieve this, Mitch feels that the overall level of sportsmanship needs to improve and all of the players should “just get along in peace and harmony!” His advice to his peers: “Play hard, try your best; winning every game is impossible.”
You may be wondering about Mitch Goldberg, the actor. Mitch has two feature length movies to his credit. “Zombie Honeymoon” (2004), in which he plays a Zombie (really!) and “The Homeboy” (2001), where he is a cook by the name of Mitch Goldberg who gets into a fist fight! You can watch the latter on YouTube. Search for more on Google. Enjoy!
Alex Cherry Paddleball profile by Dave Siegel
PFA Paddleball Player Profile for Week 9/25/17
Many of us in the paddleball community have asked these troubling questions concerning the sport: Will it survive? Will it even be played 25 years from now? The game is at a crossroads now and there is no doubt that in order for paddleball to flourish, there needs to be a great deal of extra effort by people who love the game and will go the extra mile. One of the persons who is dedicated to the growth and survival of paddleball is Alex Cherry.
Alex is a 47 year old NYC player who has been playing for only 8 years, but has emerged as one of its best upcoming players, improving all the time. As we all know, when taking up any new sport at age 39, it is quite difficult to excel, but Alex has done just that through amazing dedication, spartan-like training, playing 10-15 times per week (Wow!) and most importantly possessing a love of the game. It culminated this month when Alex won the PFA Small Ball “B” Singles Tournament. He truly believes he can continue to upgrade his game, and though not there yet, he would love to achieve an “A” ranking.
Alex’s paddleball roots go back to his Mom, Joanna, who played in the 80s. He took up the game at the PS 28 playground in Manhattan and now plays at multiple parks across the city. He is strictly a small ball player, believing that its faster action requires a higher level of skill. Alex is a steady, hard hitting, offensive player, fast afoot, has great stamina and a powerful spike, which is his favorite shot. He also mixes in a soft game including cut shots. And he is quite a student of the game, going to school every day at the courts, while developing the strategies necessary to win. But perhaps his most outstanding quality on the court is his respect for the game and his opponents. He is known to be a true gentleman and a fair player, almost to a fault, even giving up calls at times.
But the real story of Alex Cherry is his amazing drive to elevate the game and have it grow. To this end, he formed the Madballers United Smallball Group and under its auspices, he organized and ran a highly successful “B” tournament in August at Marine Park. The tournament had it all: sponsors, prize money, food, beverages and lots of interest and enthusiasm. Alex gave all his energy (and there is plenty there!) in putting this together, especially in the procurement of sponsors. He did it because he believes that well run, publicized, sponsored tournaments are a powerful vehicle for spurring the interest of players, including women and kids. He even had a professional video done on the event by Chrystal Stone, which featured enlightening interviews, as well as great clips. Check it out on YouTube. https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=bwqOtkQJBXM
Alex would now like to hold many more tournaments and is targeting December for his next one. In addition to tournaments, Alex believes that in order for the sport to flourish, it is imperative for there to be unity among the various paddleball organizations, along with strong sponsorship and uniform stringent rules for conduct. Bringing the children and women into the game is paramount as well.
Alex is certainly on the right track for promoting the growth of the game. Let’s hope that his energy is contagious, because we need more people like him to assure that the game is being played in 25 years!
You can become part of the Madballers United Smallball Group by joining the Facebook group by the same name.
Robert Sostre by Dave Siegel & Mike Melendez
Photo courtesy by Alfredo Benjamin Ramirez @ the PFA 2015 Mixed Doubles Tournament
Who is the Greatest of All Time? There have been many great paddleball champions in its history, but the person who ascends to the top of most lists is the Iceman, Robert Sostre. His championships are too numerous to mention, but perhaps most impressive is his longevity at the top of the game, starting in the mid-1980s through to today. That encompasses 4 decades, going on 5!
He started playing 35 years ago at a very young age in the Bronx at the Yankee Stadium and Van Cortlandt Park courts, inspired and tutored by his older sister, Lily. After playing with her friends, she spent hours and hours hitting with her little brother, soon realizing that he was a natural at the sport, and the creation of a champion had begun. He continued his development by playing park pick-up games every day and practicing tirelessly by himself to develop the large array of shots that are now integral to his game.
Robert is an offensive machine, always attacking the wall and spreading killers and passing shots from anywhere in the court. His favorite shot is the short-hop, which he usually rolls out. He is also an exceptional defensive player, with the uncanny ability to anticipate his opponent’s next shot. His opposite hand (left) is so strong, it is almost as good as his right. He attributes his left hand prowess to the fact that he actually throws with his left (he was a southpaw pitcher), plus long, hard practice time.
Robert is not only a great small and big ball paddleball player, but is a champion in 1-wall handball and one and 3-wall racquetball, having won multiple national titles in these sports. He also excels in three and 4-wall handball, 4-wall racquetball and paddleball, paddle tennis and has played baseball, softball, basketball, pool and table tennis. He was inducted into the outdoor racquetball (WOR) Hall Fame, and the honor that perhaps he is most proud of, the Dewitt Clinton High School Hall of Notable Alumni. Does anyone think he won’t make it to the PFA Paddleball Hall of Fame?
In 2007-8, Robert met a new challenge, tearing both his Achilles tendons within 8 months of each other. Not many athletes come back strong from this injury in one foot, much less, both. But through intense physical therapy and hard work, the Iceman came back after 2 years, playing just like he did prior to the injuries. Robert now says that the recovery was like learning how to walk again and these were the worst two years of his life.
What about Robert’s family? His sister Lily has been his mentor all his life, spurring him and guiding him to success. His late father Jimmy was an outstanding baseball player who almost made it to the pros. His Mom, Delia, get this, has never seen him play live, because she is afraid he will get hurt, but she is the keeper of all his trophies!
Robert’s advice to aspiring tournament players is to play against better players, practice by yourself, hitting as many different shots as possible and compete in as many tournaments as you can, because it’s much different than playing regular pick-up games. Sounds like good advice, Iceman.
Robert Sostre, the Iceman, is one of the true stars of paddleball. A very humble individual and a GENTLEMAN on & off the courts. You can find lots of information on his career, as well as many videos of him playing, all on the Internet. And, if you’ve never seen him play in person, don’t miss out!
Susan Stephen By Dave Siegel
PFA Player Profile for Week 10/10/17
Meet Susan Stephen, the winner of the last two major women’s paddleball events. In September, she, along with her partner, Kathy Guinan, won the 2017 Las Vegas Paddleball Tournament and this past Oct. 7, again with Kathy, she emerged victorious in the Columbus Day Weekend “On the Beach” Big Ball Paddleball Tournament, held in Hollywood, Florida.
Susan may be new to recent championships, but she is not new on the paddleball scene. She has been playing continuously for over 40 years, ever since coming to the United States from England, where she spent the first 11 years of her life. In the early days, she played both handball and small ball paddleball at Brooklyn’s Wingate Park and Lefferts High School. She started playing in paddleball tournaments in 1979, including several Budweisers, and back then was considered one of the top woman players. Eventually Susan turned to big ball paddleball and now calls the 40th St. Padegat courts her home park, where she has again emerged as one of the best woman players in the game. Back in the day, she played forever, but now Susan plays 2 to 3 times a week in the summer and less in the winter.
On the court, she a fierce, never-say-die competitor, and very steady. Her strategy is basic: get in front of her opponent, hit the ball to the opposite side and drop the ball in front of her when she has the opportunity. Her role model for her positioning skills is Anita Maldonado.
Susan has great love and respect for the game. Her sports hero was the late Steve Smith, who she says was “respectful, had great talent, and was, at the same time, mild mannered.” She too is subdued off the court, a trait she believes is not well known to her competitors. She sincerely hopes the sport can grow and greatly admires the accomplishments of our Mike Melendez, with the innovative mentorship program and the Pow-Pows that bring the paddleball community together. Susan feels improving overall player conduct is also essential for continued growth.
What about the non-paddleball life of Susan Stephen? In her younger days, she played basketball, which was her first love, until her bothersome knees made it difficult. But she claims she can still beat anyone in a shootout! She loves to cook, having learned from her grandmother, and her favorite dish is salmon and vegetables. And how about this: During the trip to Las Vegas for the tournament, she also got married! Immediately after winning the tournament, she hustled to get ready for her 8:00 PM wedding with Carl. For those of you wondering if this is a new paddleball mixed doubles team? No, sadly, Carl is a basketball player, and doesn’t play paddleball. Nevertheless, the best of health and happiness to Susan and Carl!
Dave Blatt Paddleball Profile By Jimmy Kandylas
PFA Player Profile for Week 10/16/17
“I’ll play with the kid”, I said, sentencing the kid’s mom to play with my dad. The kid and his mom played together a lot; they were a pretty tough team, but they were usually willing to split up for a “children vs. parents” game. We had played that same game a few times a week, every week, for most of the summer. We mostly played on the front courts at Bay 8th, in the late evening as the sun was coming down over the golf course across the street. It was always a fun game to close out the day. No matter how many games you’ve played, you can always gather up the energy to beat up on your parents. The kid was five foot nothing at that point. He was barely 12 years old. But, at twilight, with the sun at his back, he cast an impressive shadow, foretelling the man he would grow into.
“What side do you want, Dave?” Silly question. “OK, I’ll take the right; do you want to box?” Even at 12, he wouldn’t really dignify that with an answer, just a little shake of the head. No, he did not want to box. I would try to encourage him during the game. “Great try! You were right there! It’s OK Dave, that’s the shot, you keep going for it and it will fall. We’ll get them next time.” It didn’t seem to matter. Even at 12, he expected to hit every shot, make every get – win every game. As we got further into the summer, there was a lot less encouragement and a lot more praise. “Nice! Great shot! Amazing get! You make the last two.” The speed at which he improved was nothing short of astonishing. Before long, we were winning every game. His mom took it better than my dad. I’m sure that winning a mixed double tournament with her son a few years later further softened the blow.
I can’t claim all the credit, but I did give him some advice that summer. “This isn’t Tennis. Try switching to your left on the shots taking you off the court. If you want to get good, you need to give up that backhand.” Shows what I know. He never gave up that backhand, but wow did he get good.
Dave Blatt started playing 21 years ago at Silver Gull Beach Club, but Bay 8th is his home. For years the Bay 8th faithful knew him as “the kid.” Not a kid. Not some kid. The kid. Even when he was very young, you could see the athleticism in him, built up from years of sports ranging from gymnastics to tennis and other athletic activities, like ballet and tap dancing, which he practiced for 18 years, but has since given up.
But even more, you could see the drive – the competitive fire that few people have. As he got older and he started playing in tougher games, while still stubbornly refusing to give up that backhand, he morphed into “Federer” (although I’m sure he would have preferred “Nadal”, as Rafa is his sports hero) as he glided across the court, picking up shots that seemed un-retrievable and using his cannon of a right arm to blast balls by his opponents, sometimes in and sometimes not.
Now, as an undisputed top player in one wall paddle, big and small, as well as one wall racquet, the entire one wall community knows him as the “Hulkster.” And, thanks to Dave saying his prayers and eating his vitamins, like a good little Hulkamaniac, that cannon has become a much more reliable weapon and has been supplemented by a top notch serve and a deadly inside out forehand kill shot to the right corner. You can see the influence of a number of top players in his game; none more than Richie Miller, who Dave calls the best offensive player he’s seen in his life. But, it’s fair to say that Dave has a style all his own.
Although he only plays once or twice a week now, he has been able to continue to hone his game. He has had his ups and downs in his paddleball career, but he’s at a point where he has confidence in his shots and knows how not to beat himself, which was one of his biggest struggles when he first encountered top level competition. Dave’s advice, which he put into practice early on, is to play against better players, even players that will beat you badly, so that you challenge your body and mind to reach a higher level.
Unfortunately for Dave, that doesn’t work anymore because there just aren’t players that consistently beat him badly. For years, Dave has played regular games against the best of the best, including Rob Sostre, Freddy Ramirez, Richie Miller, Nelson Deida, Keith Jackson, Glen Winokur. Troy Varsik, as well as other top players and has been able to give as good as he gets. His success hasn’t come easy. He has had some injuries. He isn’t quite the same guy that was able to show up at Zerega at 8 am after a night of partying (which followed, of course, a day of playing at Carmine street) and was still able to crush his first game against top competition. But, as his recent tournament results, which include open wins in the 2017 AF Pro Series tournament in Rockaway and the small ball open tournament held in Marine Park in July, show, he isn’t that far off either.
Dave is disappointed by the fact that Paddleball isn’t as popular as it was in its golden years, when a good tournament would generate 128 entries, but he hopes that having events that showcase top talent will be able to attract sponsors and grow the sport back into the force it was in 70s and 80s. To that end, the High Heat events that he has thrown over the years have been a great platform for top paddleball players to display their talent. And, for anyone looking to watch some of the best games of the last few years, search “Davetallica” on YouTube, where Dave posts his videos of the events he attends. Dave hopes to one day have a unified governing body for paddleball, which is in line with the mission of the Paddleball Family Alliance; and if that happens, I have no doubt that he’ll be a big part of getting it off the ground.
Lest anyone think that Dave is a single-minded, one-wall machine, the “kid” has also grown up to be a devoted husband and father; he can set people up on a chess board as well as he sets them up on the court; he can play piano, and if you get a few drinks in him, he can even show off some of the ballet and tap moves that he developed over his years of training. Any man that can crush a spike to the corner and pull off a “petit jete” is truly a force to be reckoned with. Now, if he would only give up that backhand . . .
Bobby Schwarz Legend of the Game By Andy Krosnick
PFA Player Profile for Week 10/18/17
I’m writing this as a first hand witness, in my educated opinion, and someone who has played with the two greatest players the game has known! Baseball purists know that Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb were the greatest baseball players without argument! In our sport of one wall paddleball, the names of Bobby Schwarz and Robert Sostre, are a cut above all others!!
WITH THAT SAID, I am writing this testimony about my longtime partner, Bobby Schwarz. Bobby first played in tournament competition with his brother Richie Schwarz, who was also a great player. As brothers sometimes do, their opinions and their on court strategies, didn’t always click. And after just one tournament, they parted ways as a team. Hence, I arrived onto the scene. I was lucky enough to have played with Bobby on a recreational level, and we did exceptionally well together. Bobby and I first played in the American Paddleball Association’s Fall Open Tournament, in October of 1972, at the Brighton Beach Bathes’ Club in Brooklyn. There were 254 teams competing!! No one knew who we were. We made it all the way to the finals!! We played the future Hall of Fame team of Howie Hammer and John Bruschi. We lost. And without going into the particulars, we learned a great deal from our first tournament together.
RATHER THEN take you on a sentimental journey through our history together, I will simply tell you, as Bobby’s partner, I observed a great deal about this man, as a great competitor, who was relentless in his pursuit to victory. Bobby was a Triple Threat. He was an outstanding offensive machine who had the arsenal to back him in the form of a powerful right hand, and a very consistent left hand. He would pound you to the point of getting a setup, and then without mercy, kill it, and end the rally. But his ability to be a defensive player was almost equaled to his offensive side. He had a remarkable anticipation sense that would give him an advantage over most opponents. The third thing he possessed, was his determination, and his ability to be a master strategist. That and along with the highest level of sportsmanship, all combined into one package!! One phenomenal athlete!!
BOBBY SCHWARZ accomplished a great many accolades in his paddleball career. Unfortunately I cannot list them, nor can Bobby. During Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012, Bobby’s entire trophy room was destroyed by floods. They were all destroyed!! It’s safe to say, Bobby had well over a hundred titles, from Singles, to Doubles, to Mixed Doubles. Bobby was the First player in the history of the game to win the Triple Crown of Paddleball Competition!! He did this at least THREE TIMES that I can remember!
AS I SAID, opening this tribute to Bobby, I was fortunate to have played and won with him. I am very lucky to have played with him. Had we never played together, I would never have accomplished any of the tournament victories I have!
IN EVERY ERA, there is always one standout player. Whether it’s Howie Hammer, Bobby Schwarz, or Robert Sostre, there’s always that one player who is heads and tails above the rest. During the Golden Years of Paddleball, Bobby Schwarz led the field!!
On a personal note, I was honored to have competed with; been friends with; shared life experiences with, this Legend, Bobby Schwarz!!
Lisa Michaelessi By Dave Siegel
PFA Player Profile for Week 10/22/17
When Mike Melendez asked me to write a profile of Lisa Michaelessi, I said that I was not familiar with her. Mike replied, “What!! you don’t know Lisa? She was a top player in the ladies division back in the 80s and 90s….one of the best women players, bar none!” Well, though I have been involved in paddleball for over 50 years, for most of the last several decades, I’ve been insulated from the paddleball world outside of my home parks. So I needed to find out who is this Lisa Michaelessi, apparently a great player that I knew nothing about. A little Facebook search yielded a telling comment from Donnie Ciaffone: “Lisa Michaelessi, in my opinion, the best female southpaw in the Game.” I went on to find out that she is a champion, having won many women’s and mixed doubles tournaments, mostly with the likes of Kathy Guinan and Robert Sostre. Not bad! And, she’s still winning tournaments.
Lisa’s paddleball career started unconventionally. Because paddleball is a “city” game, not an elite club sport like tennis, I would venture to say most of us picked up the game on our own, usually not until adulthood. We were attracted to it because it is readily available, inexpensive and a cool way to exercise and hang out with our friends. We never had lessons! But Lisa started at age 5, encouraged and taught by her parents who were dedicated players at Marathon Park. However, it’s been my observation that terrific young paddleball players invariably fail to emerge as the stars we think they can be. A kid starts out playing the game, becomes a prodigy and looks like he or she will eventually become the greatest of all time, but then as a teenager, discovers boys or girls, tennis or other interests and paddleball goes down the tubes. Mike’s Kids Clinics is a heroic effort to reverse this trend and we all are hoping for its continued success. But getting back to Lisa, this, happily for our beloved sport, was not the case with her. She loved the game and stuck with it! Her late father, Charlie, became her mentor, teaching her the intricacies of the game, how to control the play from the right side and even had her study the top lefties of the day, like Steve Rothfeld. She became an expert at positioning and learned to play offensively, shooting for her opponent’s weakness, patiently waiting for her shot. Charlie not only taught Lisa the game, but attended all of her tournaments and most importantly, encouraged her to always do her best. Charlie certainly was the right person for the job. He was a paddleball lifer, a top B player back in the day who got turned on to paddleball at Orchard Beach.
By the time she was 13, Lisa’s skills had advanced to the point that she was competing in tournaments and she won her first Budweiser “B” in 1986 – the women’s singles. She continued to excel in paddleball over the years, winning many events. Except for a five year hiatus to raise her two children, she’s continued to play paddleball through to today, eventually switching to big ball, always calling Marathon Park home. She is still one of the top woman players, having won the W.E.p.A. tournament at Bay 8th St. and the Women’s Open Big Blue at Orchard Beach, both during the summer of 2016.
Lisa is an all-around athlete, combining paddleball with tennis, pickleball and softball. In the past, she was a baseball player (that’s baseball, as in hardball, not softball!), having played for 3 years and even tried out for the pros (“A League of their Own”?).
For these paddleball profiles, we ask the subject what is unique or interesting about their lives that the other players may not be aware of. Lisa has been steadfast in her response: “Nothing.” We doubt it, so perhaps others can share something we’d like to hear!
Andy Krosnick Legend of the Game By Bobby Schwarz
PFA Player Profile for Week 10/27/17
Andy Krosnick, legend (and remarkably still among the top players) of the game. Andy Krosnick is one of the most unique player to have ever competed in the game of One Wall Paddleball. In Andy’s case, I have to comment in the past; and strangely enough, I have to speak about the (hard to believe) skills that he possesses to this day.
Growing up in the Rockaways, Andy played all sports. I remember playing on a Police Athletic League Baseball team with Andy. We were probably twelve or thirteen years old. He was as fierce a competitor then as he is now. As Andy grew older he focused most of his athletic attention to Paddleball. At Beach 17th Street, in Far Rockaway, we had our home courts. Those courts were actually a training camp. We had unbelievable games there on a daily basis in the 1970’s, 1980’s and years after. It was like a tournament every day. Andy was that one guy that could drive you crazy. He returned anything and everything you could possibly hit at him. Andy had(and has) two great hands, deceiving power, clutch shot-making ability, a never give up attitude(even if you’re down 19 to 9 in a finals, a game we won) and the ability to make gets that only Andy(The Fly) can. As most followers of Paddleball know, Andy and I teamed up to be (excuse me if I sound arrogant) the team that all other teams were measured against. Andy was the perfect partner, competitor and sportsman. He was always simply there to cover my sometimes overly aggressive play. He would make ridiculously difficult returns look easy; and he would crash into fences or dive across the pavement (Lenny Dykstra like) to return opponent’s best shots, and ultimately win the point.
Here is a flashback: In one particular tournament our opponent had hit a hard, head high shot up the middle. I decided to leave it for Andy, maybe a mistake. Andy, caught by surprise, in a move any contortionist would be proud of, manages to move his arm behind his back, get his paddle above his shoulders, leap up and forward, and return the ball that was actually past him. The return softly and barely hit the wall, but was a kill shot. I never saw anything like this. Nobody ever did. Probably never will. All in a day’s work for Andy.
Andy was the best paddleball doubles partner I ever played with. We won many, many titles together. His greatness undeniably contributed immensely to my paddleball career. I can’t thank him enough for his commitment to our team, and our years of friendship. Andy gave and continues to give much of his time to every aspect of the game. He was a co-founder of the Paddleball Players Association. He promoted and directed various tournaments in New York and in Florida. Oh, by the way Andy continued to play and compete in open tournaments. I have been away from the scene for quite some time, but I know that Andy Krosnick and Robert Sostre have won several Open Paddleball Tournaments. Forget age; Andy is ageless! He is an absolute legend. I had the pleasure of competing alongside Andy for many years. Robert Sostre has benefited from teaming up with Andy in the current era of paddleball. The entire paddleball community should thank this great player and great man, Andy Krosnick, The Legend, for just being Andy. Andy, my partner, my friend, I thank you. Let the Legend Live On!
Howard Hammer Biography by John Bruschi
PFA Player Profile for Week 10/31/17
Howard Hammer is the first inductee into the PFA Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. He was not only one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, but he also contributed more to the game than anyone I know. No one else is more associated with paddleball than Howie. Therefore, the title “Mr. Paddleball ” is really appropriate.
I met Howie in the 1960’s when we both participated in Chris Lecakus’s U S Paddleball Tournaments. Howie was outstanding, winning championships in both singles and doubles. He was a great offensive player, making killers from almost any angle. We teamed-up in 1969 and went on to win the American Paddleball Association championships from 1969 to 1972. We retired shortly thereafter in order to play in the touring exhibitions.
However, more importantly for the sport was Howie’s contributions off the court. He wrote the first book on paddleball strategy called “Paddleball: How to play the game.” He designed a good looking paddle called “The Hammer”, which was very popular and had record sales. He promoted and sold single Paddleball wood walls to many clubs and parks. He eventually became president of the American Paddleball Association (APA) and for many years ran some of the best tournaments the game had seen. He helped popularize the sport with his tireless efforts to promote the game wherever he went, on and off the court.
But, it would be fair to say that the greatest accomplishment Howie made was to bring the sport to the people of the greater N Y region by promoting the touring exhibitions. From Pennsylvania to Connecticut, from Long Island to Staten Island, from the Catskills to the Jersey shore and a lot of places in between, people were able to see some of the finest players of the era, such as, Tom Terrific, Howard Solomon, Whitey Faber and Marvin Rosenberg. Of course, Howie was key to the group’s success. A fabulous entertainer and public speaker, he engaged and delighted the audiences wherever he went.
For me, it has been a tremendous experience and honor to be associated with Howie, a true professional, and I am happy to say that our friendship continues to this day.
Mark Villarico Paddleball Profile By Dave Siegel
PFA Player Profile for Week 11/12/17
He’s one of the best players ever from Long Island – one of the 10 best small ball competitors in the game today. Mark Villarico has all the tools. He has great power and is exceedingly fast with his hands, using strong forearms and wrists to “snap” his shots. He is able to dominate the court using excellent footwork to position himself to mount his offense, especially off the return of serve. Mark has all the shots: killers, spikes, a devastating low well-placed serve, steady left hand and he is a winner. But who is he really? He is also low key, humble and most of the paddleball community doesn’t know much about Mark’s background. Also, I’m sure very few, if any, know something very, very remarkable about Mark’s late mother, but this profile is about Mark and paddleball, so you’ll have to wait.
Mark actually started out playing tennis in Newbridge Park in Bellmore and he couldn’t help but notice the adjacent competitive paddleball action. He just had to be part of it! He started playing the game at age 15 at Newbridge and continued until he was 17. A little historical note: Newbridge Park was the original mecca of paddleball back in the late 60s and early 70s (before Mark’s time), where the first successful paddleball organization, the American Paddleball Association (APA), originated. All of the early big tournaments were under the auspices of the APA. Getting back to Mark, he started playing paddleball really seriously when he was 25, traveling to many parks throughout Long Island, Queens and the Bronx. He had the good fortune to learn from some of the best players: Richie Miller, Anthony Fiorino, Donnie Ciaffone and Hoppy.
Mark’s game continued to develop and by the late 90s, he was among the best players. In 1998 he soured on tournament play and took a five year hiatus from competitive paddleball, after which he re-emerged once again as a serious player and his game continued to ascend. He has been playing at his present high level for approximately 6 years. Mark works hard to hone his skills. He exercises regularly to stay in paddleball shape, plays at least twice a week, eats well and he feels that his game is still improving. One of the factors that keeps him going is his desire to help the sport to flourish. He has great respect for the people who are leading the drive to accomplish this like Mike and all the hard work he puts in, including the kids clinics, as well as Jay and Charlene. He especially values the efforts to maintain professionalism, especially in tournaments.
Mark’s very early years were spent nomadically living in many countries, including several years in Italy, where he learned to speak fluent Italian. He eventually came back to the United States, settling in Queens, then Long Island. He is married, has 3 kids, ages 25, 13 and 8. Mark has been a successful home improvement contractor for 22 years. He also plays tennis, volleyball, baseball, softball, he mountain bikes and is an avid paintballer.
OK, what’s so astonishing about Mark’s mother? Well, in her youth, she lived for a time in Beverly Hills and one day she hid in the garage of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Yes, that’s none other that Elvis! And they hit it off!! They dated for several years!!! In Elvis’ later years, they even reconnected. All I can say is WOW!!!!
Keith Jackson Paddleball Profile By Dave Siegel
PFA Player Profile for Week 11/27/17
OK, let’s get you thinking. Who is the best father and son paddleball team in history? Wait, we must be politically correct. Who is the best parent and child team? Although I’ve been around the game for over 50 years, I admit I’ve not seen many such teams, but I’ll cast my vote anyway. Not counting Peter and Hank Grassi from my blog “The Incredible Day Howie Hammer and John Bruschi Met their Match,” Barry and Keith Jackson are by far the best. Barry Jackson is a Staten Island paddleball legend, one of the top Island players from the 70s through to the early 2000s. Keith is one of the elite big and small ball players in the game today and probably the best player ever to come out of Staten Island.
Barry introduced his son to the game at the tender age of five and by ten Keith was playing in the “men’s” games. As Barry nurtured him, Keith’s game improved by leaps and bounds through his teenage years, and they rose to become one of the most formidable teams on the Island. They almost always did well in tournaments, even off-Island. As is often the case with teams joined by blood or marriage, they were often very vocal with each other between points, but they meshed beautifully together during play. Once he got his driver’s license, Keith was off to new competition, mainly in Coney Island, but he remained a frequent partner of his Dad.
Keith’s game is highlighted by his deceptive power, which he unleashes with a compact swing, driving the ball with unexpected velocity. He is a multi-tooled player, with a large variety of shots, his favorite is to the right corner, which he can angle, kill or drop. He has excellent anticipation, is terrific defensively and his left hand is outstanding. I’ve seen him play since his teenage years and the most significant improvement is his mental toughness. In those early years, he could be beaten by him beating himself. But that is over and done. He now is not fazed by level of competition or the pressure of tournament play. Over the years, Keith has had several regular partners besides his Dad, among them Glen Winokur, Godfrey Brown, Troy Varsik, Greg Scarlatta and Adam Brodsky.
Keith still calls Staten Island his paddleball home where small ball is the game. He also plays occasionally at Clifton and he gets his big ball games at Bay 8th and Coney Island. Overall, he tries to play twice a week. Now in his mid forties, Keith is playing close to his peak, which actually is quite remarkable. His career has been marred by many injuries which have kept him off the courts for long chunks of time. He has had surgeries to his right shoulder (twice), left shoulder, left knee (twice), two back surgeries, and throw in carpal tunnel surgeries to both hands. That adds up to nine! He is now finally healthy and let’s hope it’s nine and done!
For those unaware of what Keith does in his spare time, he is a Doctor, actually a Dermatologist. For the past 14 years he has had a successful practice on Staten Island (trust me, the waiting room is always packed). Most of you also know that he was part of the three person team that saved the life of fellow paddleball player Tony Cascella when he was felled by sudden cardiac arrest two years ago. He also has quite a large family with 5 kids, ages 17 (twins), 15, 10 and 8. One of the twins, Shawn, a high school senior, is the top public school tennis player in NYC and has won a partial scholarship to Hofstra. Of course his proud father attends most of his matches. Keith is also a tennis player, plays racquetball and most recently has taken up pickleball.
We asked Keith for his take on the sport of paddleball and where it’s at today. He is concerned that there is a great deal of room for improvement in the overall behavior, particularly at tournaments and he feels that it is imperative that this happens for the sport to flourish. This is a belief held by many, and let’s hope that the present ongoing efforts being made by the outstanding paddleball leaders, as well as the paddleball community, reverse this blemish.
Kim Avena Paddleball Player Profile by David Siegel
She has done a wonderful job furthering the cause of women’s paddleball. Kim Avena founded the Women’s Empowerment paddleball Alliance three years ago to give the ladies the chance to show off their talents and to compete in tournaments of their own. Until W.E.p.A., the only organized competition available to women in recent years was the “men’s” tournaments. Focusing on big ball, she has organized several very successful women’s and mixed doubles tournaments in NYC and Florida, including a fundraiser for the PFA. W.E.p.A. now has over 600 members, with many men involved too. Under Kim’s leadership, women’s paddleball has grown significantly, with more and more ladies becoming involved in our now flourishing sport.
Kim started playing paddleball at Dyker Beach at age 12 and soon was competing in real games on the “other side.” In a few years, she packed her paddleball bag and moved to the big time games at Bay 8th Street, which is her home park. She also is a regular at Hollywood Beach Garfield Park during the winter months. The move to Bay 8th was spurred by her interest in the many tournaments they conducted, although she couldn’t compete in them because of the demands of her job. Ironically, now that she has the time, she can’t play in the tournaments because of several nagging injuries. She currently is playing twice a week.
Kim has an outstanding game, sparked by two good hands, excellent anticipation and steady play. Her favorite shot is her topspin drop, which is a “heartbreaker” that she executes with either hand. One of her greatest assets on the court is her anticipation, enhanced by studying the angle of her opponent’s paddle during play. Because Kim has not been a tournament player, her skills on the court are not as well known as they would be if she had participated. However, those that have played with and against her over the years are very cognizant of her high level of play.
Who is her favorite player? The usual, but besides their obvious skills, she also sees some unique qualities in Robert Sostre and Kathy Guinan. Robert’s “eyes dilate and move like a bird’s while playing” and Kim admires Kathy’s “court sense, dancing ponytail and smile.” Also up there is Bay Lui, who happens to be her husband. She loves the way he perfectly combines offense and the ability to retrieve almost every ball. A commonality among these players is their outstanding sportsmanship, a trait that Kim values highly. I asked Kim if she has played much with Bay as a partner and how did they get along? Her answer tells it all: “Are you kidding!” She qualifies this by saying “It’s not him, it’s me!,” furthering the observation that paddleball teams linked by blood or marriage, more often than not, don’t work well.
Speaking of sportsmanship, Kim is also an active participant in the PFA’s ongoing efforts to upgrade the overall conduct in the competitive game. She was involved in the development of the Code of Conduct and serves on the PFA Disciplinary Committee. At her recent tournament at Zerega, she implemented the player signoff on the COC, which is an important step forward in addressing the behavioral issues of the few players that are holding back the growth of the game.
Like the leaders of the PFA, Kim is passionate about growing the game. She feels that the best way to introduce the youth to the game is by continuing the efforts to draw in the many handball players in their late teens and early twenties. More and more she sees them picking up paddles, and staying with our game.
So that’s the paddleball life of Kim Avena. What about her real life would we like to know? Well, she considers herself to be a highly intuitive person, and she’s not talking about anticipating shots on the court. She says everyone has the power, but only a few are able to use it to advantage. Sounds like something we want to know more about
Nelson Deida Paddleball Player Profile by Mike Melendez
He is known for his shot-making artistry, quick reflexes and powerful game, as well as for his confrontational on-court behavior that sometimes has landed him in trouble with referees and tournament directors. Nelson Deida is the Paddleball version of the great Hall of Fame tennis player John McEnroe, from whom he says he learned his passion for the game. Nelson, you can’t be serious!
Nelson was born and raised in the Bronx into a Paddleball family – both his mother and father were good players. They introduced him to Paddleball at the age of five at the Yankee Stadium courts and he quickly fell in love with the game. “It was the combination of the speed of the game, its competitive nature, and also the family atmosphere that is very unique and wonderful.” After the stadium courts were demolished to build the new Yankee Stadium, Van Cortlandt Park became his home park.
Nelson continued to play with his Mom and Dad until the age of twelve. At eight, he competed in his first kids’ tournament. This was the era of the Budweiser tournaments and Nelson played with one of his parents in these classics through the age of fifteen. (“Minors” were otherwise prohibited.) He then began competing in tournaments across the tristate area and as his game developed, the Paddleball community quickly took notice of this skinny kid with the afro from Yankee Stadium/Van Cortlandt.
A left hander, Nelson is a fearless competitor with all the tools required of a great Paddleball player. His powerful overhand service motion is unique in Paddleball, with the biggest advantage being his ability to disguise its placement. Known for very quick reflexes and deft hands, he possesses a superior front wall game. He describes his game as “power, touch, passion, excitement.” Indeed, he is an artist on the court with one of the most exciting games to watch. His favorite shot is the drop-shot.
Nelson has now been playing Paddleball for 35 years. He stopped for about four years in total, due to the lack of tournaments and the emergence of one-wall racquetball. Back in the day, he played 4 to 5 times a week until his late 30s, and now he still plays at least twice a week. In the winter season his Paddleball home is Zerega Indoor. In the summer he does not have a home park, instead he travels to different parks in search of tough competition and to get together with his close friends.
Nelson said he was fortunate to grow up playing the game where he was exposed to many different players and he was able to learn from them. He particularly recalls J.C., a very knowledgeable player from Yankee Stadium, who called everyone “Fish.” He taught Nelson how to use his opposite hand and imparted this wisdom: “In order to be good at this game you have to be able to adapt on-the-spot by changing your approach mid-game. To do that you must learn from your mistakes and be able to play different ways.” Among the players Nelson studied were, of course, his parents, as well as Freddy Diaz, who taught him how to use his reflexes and hands. Anita Maldonado taught him to focus on his “tenacity, toughness, dedication and to practice, play hard and have fun.” Kathy Guinan showed him how to use his quick hands, helped with his positioning and maintaining focus. Anthony Fiorino was the model on positioning and playing defense. Craig Ruiz showed him how to use the power game to full advantage. Richard McKnight, who was an important mentor throughout the years, helped him develop the drop-shot. Sammy Cesareo was instrumental in him learning how to play smart, while Frank Savino showed him toughness, speed, diving and turning defense into offense. Brandon Fason was a model for hard and tough play. Sue Stephen helped him learn fundamentals and how to play smart. Richie Miller taught him how to go for it no matter what, and precision. Finally, Ritchie Gonzalez, most importantly, taught him how to play together as teammates and to have fun.
I asked Nelson what he thinks of the sport of Paddleball, “The game of Paddleball is a sport that is not easy, it’s tough and fun and a great sport to play.” I also asked, what is needed to take it to the next level? He says Paddleball has a solid foundation, but “what is needed for the sport to grow is exactly what Mike Melendez and the PFA are doing. Their approach is the right one by bringing in the youth with the kids’ clinics, raising their awareness of the sport and getting them interested in Paddleball. This is so important because Paddleball helped me stay out of trouble. We also need to showcase the sport like Mike and the PFA are doing with the PowPows.” Nelson believes obtaining sponsorship is key, as well as developing a ball that is viewable on television to increase exposure. His advice to his Paddleball peers is to continue supporting the game, have fun playing, and maintain that family atmosphere.
On the personal side, Nelson is married with four beautiful kids. In addition to Paddleball, he plays baseball and softball and a little handball. His sports hero is Bo Jackson. He also claims that he is a good dancer!
Nelson’s dream has always been for the sport of Paddleball to make it big and he hopes that happens in his lifetime. “I would like to say thank you to the sport of Paddleball and the people who play, for giving me an outlet, and teaching me so much about life and for keeping me out of trouble.” Trust me, Nelson can be serious!
Miriam Silva Paddleball Player Profile #28 by Mike Melendez
Although she has been playing big blue paddleball for only a year and a half, Miriam Silva has quickly climbed to the top of the women’s division and is a force to be reckoned with in the coming years! It’s remarkable that in this short amount of time she has already won six tournaments!
Miriam is an aggressive right handed player with that never-give-up determination. Her game is structured around taking immediate control of rallies with her powerful and consistent serve, her return of serve, as well as her forceful forehand and backhand strokes. In fact, Miriam’s forehand is considered to be one of the most powerful in the women’s game. She has all the shots in her arsenal – she can spike it, drop it, but by far, her power drive is her money shot. She can jam most of her opponents as very few women are capable of. Miriam is also deceptively quick on the court and has very good anticipation.
Like many paddleball players, Miriam started out playing handball and plays at a very high level – she is a certified ‘A’ player. She also is an excellent one-wall racquetball player. Miriam fell in love with paddleball after watching her dear friend Jewel Pacheco engaging in an intense doubles paddleball match at Central Park. It was with Jewel’s encouragement that she tried paddleball. From the outset, she realized that her aggressive style enabled her to make a perfect transition from racquetball and handball to paddleball. She said, “At present, I am passionate towards paddleball, as it strongly resembles handball, my original sport of choice.” During the winter months, she plays mostly weekends and in the summer, she plays as much as possible traveling to different parks looking for tough competition. Her paddleball home is Central Park.
On the personal side Miriam is a loving mother and grandmother. She LOVES to spend time with her sixteen year old son Jacob, who was diagnosed with autism. It is because of him that her passion shines through in her game. She is a talented lady, who can also crochet, is a great cook, and takes pride in being a wonderful mother and grandmother. Her favorite food is her daughter Jessica’s pasta and meat sauce.
Back to paddleball, she strongly feels that for the sport to grow, players must display good sportsmanship on the court. I asked her what she would like to change about the sport. She thinks increasing exposure is key for it to rise to the next level. Though she does not favor a specific paddleball player, she tries to emulate the style of the great superstar tennis player, Rafael Nadal, who is also her sports hero. She does have a peeve concerning paddleball: “Though there are paddles featured with the names of male competitors, there are no featured paddles with any FEMALE players on any of the signature brands. This, despite the fact that there are so many female players in the game today.” I could not agree more with you, Miriam! Paddleball manufacturers, the time has come to give the women players the recognition they have surely earned! They are one of the reasons the sport is on the rise! #MiriamAndTheLadiesGotNext!
Carlito Espinal Paddleball Profile #29 by Mike Melendez
He is quiet and most of the time he wears a friendly smile on his face, but don’t let that fool you. On the court, he has the killer instinct of a lion. Carlito has proven himself to be one of the top players in the game today, with a vast arsenal of shots at his disposal. He can play a mean game of both small and big blue paddleball, as well as racquetball. When his game is “on,” he is a BEAST, hitting winners from any angle within the playing area of the court – “Carlito’s Way!”
Carlos Espinal was born in Brooklyn and has been playing paddleball since the age of eight. He started at the “6’s” park (also known as Bush Park) in Queens. His brother Ralph was his biggest influence and is the reason he started playing. Early on, Carlito frequently went to the park to watch his brother play and he quickly developed a love for paddleball. He watched many great players from whom he learned the game, including Gary Evans, Milton Pérez, José Guadalupe and Richie Miller. Later on, he gained much knowledge from Anthony Fiorino, Sammy Cesario, Robert Sostre, Donnie Ciaffone, Ramon “Papo” Padilla and lefty Ralph Badillo. But his brother, Ralph, who was a solid player himself, was always his paddleball role model. Eventually paddleball at the 6’s park ended and he and his friends moved on to Flushing Meadows, which became his home park. By the time he was fourteen, his game was strong enough to compete with the top players at Flushing, including Farley Figueroa, Miguel Mateo, Kevin Rolon and Godfrey Brown. At approximately age eighteen, another passion took over his sports life. He had become involved in playing baseball and softball, which conflicted with his weekend paddleball time, and his interest in paddleball waned.
After a 10 year hiatus from the sport, he returned to paddleball because he missed it and he wasn’t playing as much baseball/softball. During the summer, he split his playing time between Orchard beach in the Bronx and Juniper Park in Queens. In the winter season, he played at McFadden’s, Astoria Indoor and, of course, Zerega, the mecca of indoor paddleball, which eventually became his home court. There, he battles with some of the top players in the game.
Carlito’s game is power and he is one of the hardest hitters in the game today. He keeps his opponents on defense and overwhelms them with his drives. Carlito loves powering the serve low or high and then attacking the wall off his opponent’s return. His favorite shot is the spike or “Yonker.” He also has excellent control, is very physically fit and has one of the best cut/slices of the present day players. He said he learned this shot from Freddy “The Animal” Diaz, who was also his favorite player growing up and had “every shot in the book.”
Carlito loves the sport because of its competitiveness, power and speed. He has won his share of tournaments, but presently he is not enthusiastic about playing in tournaments because of all the bickering that goes on. He is pleased that the PFA and other tournament directors are working to fix this condition, but for now he’d rather get a group of players and “go beat each other up for a few hours.” He likes to play both small and big ball equally, as both games have their own challenges, which he very much enjoys. He also loves the great family atmosphere. He said, “Everyone in the paddleball community has been around for years and it is like family.”
On the personal side, his sport hero is Michael Jordan, “He had that killer instinct and knew how to execute.” His favorite food is a nice medium-rare rib-eye steak. He loves sports in general and has played handball, tennis, football, basketball, softball, baseball and table tennis.
What about the future of the paddleball game? He believes that for the game to grow, more exposure, sportsmanship and sponsorship is needed. “We need people with passion to push for those sponsors. People like Kathy Guinan, Mike Melendez and the others involved in the PFA.” Thank you Carlito! As far as changes in the sport, he would like to see independent, non-playing referees in tournament competition. “That would eliminate some of what, in my opinion, is the favoritism that exists to some degree.” His advice to his peers is “to play, compete, but also have fun doing it.” He said that for many years he played to win and didn’t always enjoy the game as much as he could have. “When you only play to win you forget how to have fun.” Carlito’s Way!
Ray Sanchez Paddleball Profile #30 by Dave Siegel
What does ADS stand for? I tried Googling it and found American Daffodil Society, All Day Sickness, After Dinner Speech, All Directional Shower and Automatic Dice Server. Actually there are over 100 listed, but nowhere to be found is “Ace Drop Shot.” Ray Sanchez claims this as his shot and coined the ADS acronym as a tribute to the shot’s greatness, and he even uses ADS as his moniker. I haven’t had the opportunity to see Ray play much, but Mike Melendez told me he’s never actually seen him successfully execute a drop shot (LOL)! How could that be, Mike? It’s his name! Well, Ray and Mike will have to settle this. Anyway, this is all part of Ray’s persona as the life of the paddleball party. He keeps everyone loose with his joking and clowning, while being a great friend to the paddleball community.
But Ray is more than a comedian at the courts, he is also very good player. He rates himself as a B to B plus player. He is a solid, tough competing lefty with power, quickness, a very effective serve and outstanding anticipation and positioning. His favorite shot is to the corner on either side. He plays both small and big ball and works hard at improving his game as he strives to advance in the ratings.
He learned the game hanging out at Zerega Indoor and watching some of the top players of the 80s, among them, Robert Sostre, Sammy Cesario, Frank Savino and Anthony Fiorino. He watched them in awe and when he was finally able to get on the court with them, “Wow! the rest is history!” In recent years, Nelson Deida, Andre Hopkins and Mike Melendez have been major influences. The Hop taught him to have a plan on every serve and Ray’s exposure to Mike’s overall “awesome game” has helped him advance as a player.
Ray has been playing for thirty years with a few gaps in between. He started in Van Cortlandt Park and still considers it his paddleball home. He also plays regularly at Zerega, Juniper Park and at the HES in Brooklyn. Ray is dedicated to the game and presently plays two to three times per week. He says, “I love the intensity and competitiveness of the game.”
Ray’s big contribution to paddleball goes well beyond his playing and the comedic relief he provides. He is a big supporter of the paddleball revival movement and in particular, the Paddleball Family Alliance and its mission of teaching the youth, upholding the rules of conduct, promoting respect among players and improving the refereeing through training. He continuously promotes tournaments and events, oftentimes with a touch of his brand of comedy. He has volunteered on many occasions at Mike’s kids clinics and has made several cash donations to support the cause. In his real life, he is involved in artwork and printing and helps Mike with the design of the promotional material, including the tee shirts, posters, etc.
Ray gave us a scare last summer at a tournament in Juniper Park. He became dehydrated and needed emergency medical treatment. Ray says he is fully recovered and is confident that the changes he has made to his fluid intake will prevent recurrences. He cautions the paddleball community to stay hydrated, especially in the hot weather.
What about Ray’s non-paddleball life? Ray has two sons, a daughter and two grandchildren. His livelihood focuses on print coordination, specializing in creative software and he is a master printer. He is a hard worker, always willing to try new things. Ray reveals that he has a secret talent: he does a mean imitation of Yoda from Star Wars (voice only!). His sports hero is Joe Montana and his favorite type of food is Mexican. Not surprisingly, he is very conscious of the needy, and has recently developed a soft spot in his heart for helping the homeless, as he is now getting involved in this great cause.
Ray’s message to the paddleball community: “I love playing paddleball. It is an excellent pastime of fun, a good workout and I am fond of the friends I have made along the way.” Ray, there is no doubt you have fun in the game! Now we just need to get the internet up to speed and recognize ADS!
Donnie Ciaffone Paddleball Player Profile No-31 by Mike Melendez
The decade of the 1980s marked the Golden Years of paddleball as the sport’s popularity skyrocketed across the five boroughs of New York. Many of the public parks were producing budding stars. At Bay 8th Street in Brooklyn a 16 year old kid named Donnie Ciaffone was attracting much attention and the word spread across the city. Donnie was gifted with superior athletic talent, chevalier social skills, and a unique, almost “rock star” presence. Yes! At Bay 8th Street the sport of paddleball was shaping its next star!
Donnie was born in Brooklyn and started playing paddleball at the age of 15 at a small park on Avenue S in Bensonhurst. Eventually he was looking for tougher competition and took his game to Bay 8th, which became his home park. Donnie recalls, “While coming up in the sport at Bay 8th, a great legend named Caesar Polichetti took me under his wing and taught me discipline, technique and how to use my left hand. I then met another legend, Rochelle Weiner Martinez, who introduced me to the games played across the city.” Donnie became one of the best players at Bay 8th, his deadly game dominated by extraordinary power and incredible spikes. The spike was his favorite shot, which he hit to all angles of the court, but yet his game was guided by a smooth, graceful glide. He made the game look so easy.
Donnie took on all comers at Bay 8th for 15 years, while competing in tournaments across the tri-state area. Donnie and Rochelle teamed up for many tournaments and won several championships, including two Budweiser mixed doubles. Mixed doubles was closest to his heart and he loved playing with Rochelle and at times they were unstoppable. Donnie was also an early proponent of women’s equality in paddleball. Ray Gaston, the president of the Professional Paddleball Players Association, the organization of paddleball’s Glory Days, said, “Ciaffone was one of the first paddleball super-stars to actively lobby for greater women’s participation in the sport. In an era when women players were not taken as seriously as they are today, Donnie often challenged other male greats to play more mixed doubles. “Let’s hear it for the ladies!” was his cry. This stance, coupled with his dashing stature, earned him icon status and his image was incorporated into the PPPA logo.” Paddleball legend, Anita Maldonado said, “There are real marriages and then there are mixed doubles marriages in paddleball. One of those special unions was Donnie Ciaffone and Rochelle in the 1980s. They dominated one-wall mixed doubles like no other team. What makes a great mixed doubles team? The most important ingredient is an awesome player like Donnie Ciaffone. He was athletic, smart and he was hard hitter. He always fought for position and used his partner as a pick. His height enabled him to have the best spike in the game. When Donnie spiked the ball, he spiked it out of the park! He was tall, blonde and boy was he handsome! Although he was not as dominant in men’s doubles as he was in mixed, Donnie will go down as one of the best players of the 1980s!”
At the age of thirty, Donnie moved to the Bronx where his game matured as he faced fierce competition. Donnie recalls, “In the Bronx I was spanked and taught by players like Anthony Fiorino, Robert Cheilli, Ralph Capogrosso, Craig Ruiz, Bobby Fiorentino, Fernando Frias and Mike Melendez.” Speaking for myself, I teamed up with Donnie for a number of years and I can personally say he was humble and gentle by nature, but everyone knew when Donnie was in the park! Whether at an elite private beach club against other top ranked players or in a local urban tough neighborhood park against lower-level ranked players, it didn’t matter, the man was there to play!
Present day, Donnie lives in Florida and plays about twice a month at Hollywood Park. He would like to play more, but like many of us, the game he played for so many years has resulted in his body taking a beating, and it has taken its toll. “After spinal surgery, and having both knees replaced, my paddleball game just isn’t what it used to be.” He has taken up pickleball, which is the sport he now mostly plays because it’s much easier on his body.
On the personal side, Donnie has this to say about his life today: “I live with my wonderful, beautiful wife Neda. She is my world. I love to play pickleball and I love to fish. Living in Florida makes this very accessible to me. As far as food goes, I’m a meat and potatoes guy and I love an occasional martini. Most of us think that it’s all about winning, but it’s not. The friendships, the physical exercise and family union are what’s most important.”
How does Donnie feel about the paddleball game today? “I think paddleball has grown in diversity with the different balls that are presently played. I love the fact that there are now young players in the game and what the Paddleball Family Alliance is doing with the clinics is remarkable. Thank you Mike for that. My advice to young players is to pace yourself and to play only when you’re healthy. I have seen what can happen first-hand by overplaying. I believe paddleball is on the right track and I wish it would spread nationally.”
“When we consider One Wall “Legends,” few in paddleball come larger than Donnie Ciaffone!” – Ray Gaston
Jimmy Kandylas Paddleball Profile No-32 by Dave Siegel
When I write my paddleball profiles, a list of questions is sent to the subject that elicits some basic information. Then I usually reach out via interview, hoping to draw some interesting tidbits. Well, for Jimmy Kandylas we got literally an autobiography, a 51/2 page, 9.5-point font, single-spaced document. This was actually not a surprise, considering the length of some of his postings in the Facebook PFA group. I told Mike, let’s just publish it as-is. Mike said, “No way! We’ll do it like all the others.” Yes Sir, here goes:
Actually, the length and content of Jimmy’s “autobiography” is an indicator of how seriously he takes the game and the true lover of paddleball that he is. He has given a great deal of thought to what makes the game tick and what needs to be done to keep it growing. The one thing he did not mention, however, is his benevolence to the sport. He is one of the greatest contributors to the game, both in terms of financial assistance and dedication of his own time and effort. Jimmy is an attorney and was instrumental in making the PFA a legitimate non-profit organization. He has also provided pro-bono legal assistance to Mike on numerous occasions. Plus, not only for the PFA, but for other organizations as well, he has made cash donations, provided food for tournaments, shirts for kids and helped out at tournaments.
Jimmy has been playing paddleball for 25 years, with a 7-8 year layoff, having resumed regular playing in 2017. His paddleball history starts and continues to this day at Bay 8th Street. As a child, his Dad, a paddleball player himself, took him to the park and by the time he was 16, he was playing seriously. Jimmy reflects now that having his parents close by was actually a negative in the development of his game because of the pressure he felt to impress them. Bay 8th Park shines through as the focal point in Jimmy’s paddleball life. It’s where he learned the game, hung out and made great friends. Even though he has lived in New Jersey for some time, he still comes back to play once or twice a week to what he calls the “Mecca” of big-ball paddleball.
Jimmy is a big guy with a strong offensive game, always on the attack, and has deceptive quickness. Refreshingly, he is quite self-deprecating in assessing his game. He considers power to be his greatest asset, almost to a fault. He says he often tries to just blast it when he is in trouble, but “unfortunately that doesn’t work too well against better competition.” He is a right handed, primarily right side player and his favorite shot is the spike to the right corner, which he says if the opportunity is there, “I’m taking it!” He regrets that if he doesn’t hit it quite right, he usually “eats it,” especially when playing against people familiar with his game. Jimmy has a long list of Bay 8th Streeters and other paddleball players from whom he has benefited from playing with and watching. Among them, Bobby Fiorentino, Bay Liu, Vito DiSpigna, Jimmy Hoe, Anthony Russo, Gene Grilli, Glen Winokur, Keith Jackson, Mike Dembin, Mitch Goldberg, Paul Angel and Dave Blatt.
While many people in the paddleball community have expressed pessimism on the future of the game, Jimmy optimistically sees its resurgence. He cites the invasion of top young players, including Danny Fraschilla, Megan Flash, Julio Blanco, Mike Bergida, Joey Liota, Brian Romero, Ryan Lopez, Melissa Sky and Dave Blatt. He looks at the paddleball calendar and sees the summer months filled every weekend with a tournament, a PowPow or other organized get-together. But of course he knows there must be a concerted effort to have the sport grow and has some solid theories on how to best accomplish it. First, we need to balance the emphasis on competition via sponsored money-prize tournaments versus the recreational aspect of the game, making the game as much fun as it possibly can be. “I think balancing competition with community is the surefire path to success.” Also, he believes that there is a wealth of people in other sports to draw from: persons playing similar sports like handball, racquetball and tennis, as well as athletes who are “aging out” of their organized competitive sports like baseball, hockey and football. He sees pickleball as a model of how to accomplish this in that its leaders have done a great job of converting players from other sports.
What about Jimmy’s life outside of his paddleball world? Go to his Facebook page and read it for five minutes and you know what is Number One: Family. He posts incessantly about his beautiful four-year old daughter Kalli, with wonderful anecdotes and photos. The story of her telling him that she wants to have a baby is priceless. He was actually motivated to learn to cook for Kalli and has become quite accomplished, including his favorite: orange flavored French toast on Challah bread. Ironically, she won’t touch it, opting instead for her Cheerios! Jimmy is also a former powerlifter; he is into science fiction and super heroes and “any other geeky thing you can imagine.” And, he is a pizza lover. “I could eat pizza all day, every day.”
Back to paddleball, Jimmy recognizes that one of the problems that the ongoing effort to grow the sport needs to overcome is getting people on the same page in moving ahead and not criticizing those who are innovating or putting forward new ideas. His message is that we are all on this boat together and it is a small boat. We should all work together and pull in the same direction. “We have so many great people involved… if we were able to just keep focusing on having fun days and growing the paddleball community in a positive direction, the sport will do really well in the near future.”
Jimmy is grateful that his paddleball community has been good to him. He loves that when he came back to the game last year, he was welcomed like he never left. Plus, he has made lots of new friends and “that means the world to me. Thank you all!” Jimmy, the paddleball community thanks you too! Now, next time please keep it down to a couple of pages (double spaced, 12-point font)!
Anthony Rodriguez Paddleball Profile No-33 by Kim Ramos-Rodriguez
Tony has been playing ball since he was 17 years old. Born and raised in the Bronx, he started playing handball before transitioning to paddle and racquet, although he still prefers small-ball paddleball. A skilled lefty player, but beware of his right hand too!!
Tony’s love for the sport had him traveling around the city to get games – from his early days at Yankee Stadium to Carmine Street, from Zerega to McFadden’s, from Roy Wilkins to 40th Street, from Van Cortlandt Park to People’s Park and Orchard Beach to Red Hook – there was never a lack of games. These days he considers Van Cortlandt his home park, although he spends many weekends with his family at Orchard Beach. What he considers his only vice, paddle is his therapy, playing 5–6 times a week, he can recount many a late night playing until the sun came up.
Tony takes a minimalist approach to the game – keep the points short and minimize mistakes. On defense, he tries to keep the play going until he can get a set-up to make an offensive shot. His favorite shot is his low serve, which he has worked on for a long time. The advice he would give to his fellow paddleball players would be to stay focused and play to your strengths. Persevere and be confident that you’ll always have the advantage because you can adjust your game better than your opponent can.
There are many players that Tony admires, but two in particular that he tries to take something from their games are Eddie “Flaco” Rodriguez and Freddy “The Animal” Diaz, great closer! Tony’s favorite athlete is Roberto Clemente, calling him “a great athlete who played with Grace and Great Passion.”
When asked what he would change about the sport, Tony confesses there are a lot of veteran players that play the game but don’t know the game – he would encourage everyone to get a better UNDERSTANDING of the rules the PFA put together and publishes on a weekly basis. Tony says he has no secret talents, but anyone who really knows him, knows he has a wicked sense of humor.
His love for the game has not diminished over the years despite a double knee replacement just three years ago. He has happily passed down his passion to his son, Anthony – kudos to the Paddleball Family Alliance (Mike Melendez, Kathy, Marcelo, Mitch and so many others) for teaching and mentoring our kids. So look out for who’s got next!!
Caesar Polichetti Paddleball Profile No-34 by Dave Siegel
Remember the children’s storybook, “The Little Engine That Could?” In baseball, it’s José Altuve, the diminutive American League MVP who led the Astros to the World Championship. Remember Pete Rose, the ball player (not the gambler)? He was hard-nosed, hustling, fighting for every edge, and always playing all-out. Put them both together and you have Caesar Polichetti who, despite being very far from a tall man, has a very big heart and all his life said, “I think I can! I think I can!” just like the little locomotive. And, like Pete Rose, he played every point of every game fiercely, striving for the ultimate goal: winning. Caesar’s athletic ability and dedication, combined with his persona, enabled him to become one of the best paddleball players from the late 70s and 80s, the golden era of paddleball.
The story of Caesar Polichetti goes back to Brooklyn in the mid-1970s when Caesar, who was then a handball player, saw paddleball being played at Seth Low Playground. It looked like a game he wanted to try and, along with his friend Rocco, he bought a $3 paddle and started practicing. A month later, thinking they were ready for competition, they went to the park under the Verrazano Bridge where they had heard there were good games. Guess what? Caesar got crushed. But this man with the big heart would not be fazed. (I think I can!) He went back to Seth Low, determined to learn the game and become a good player. He bought a Black Beauty, found a mentor, an experienced player named Howie, and practiced and practiced, his game quickly developing. He and Howie returned to the Verrazano a few months later and as they entered the courts, they gazed at the faces of the players. They were all silently saying “Oh no, this guy’s back!” But it was a different story this time. No, they didn’t beat everyone, but they were competitive, winning and losing. He was now welcome and the Verrazano courts became his home park.
A few years later, Caesar, now one of the finest players around, heard that the best players in Brooklyn were at Bay 8thStreet. So he and most of the guys packed up and moved to Bay 8th. Some of the better known competitors that moved from the Verrazano to Bay 8th were Patty Ranieri, Andrew Grosso, Sal Gargiulo, Paul Coscione, Alex (Batman) Cordani, Frank Calabria, and Anthony Russo. There, they met up with Donnie Ciaffone, Bob Kessler, George Helmerich, Jerry Resnick and Eddie Pino. Caesar teamed up with George and they played in many tournaments together and became one of the top (and toughest) teams in the game.
Reflecting now, Caesar says that his stature was an asset to him in paddleball, propelling him to go all out on every point of every game against the top players. Never giving in to any physical advantage they had, nor complaining about rough play, he is proud to say he was “not a crybaby.” “Get inside, you bump me, I bump you.” He was never in awe of any of the greats he competed against, even playing singles in tournaments against the likes of Bobby Schwarz and Mike Melendez. He was an offensive player, always looking to get front position. His favorite shot? the Killer, of course.
Another factor in Caesar becoming the man he turned out to be is that he grew up in an era which was far different from today. There were no video games! He and his friends were always playing sports or city games, like stickball, stoopball, punchball, boxball and eventually turning to handball. It was these sports activities that kept him on the straight and narrow and probably a major reason he became who he is.
Later in his career, now an older player, Caesar teamed up with Alex (Batman) and played in Masters competitions. Back then, during paddleball’s heyday, the Masters drew large numbers of top players, many of whom were still playing open competition. Caesar and Batman won the 1988 and ’89 Budweiser Masters, beating Marvin Haberman in the finals both years.
Is there a soft side to Caesar Polichetti? Yes, speaking first hand, he is a gentleman (off the court!). Caesar related to me that when he watches a game, though he may want a particular person to win, he never roots outwardly, showing respect for all the players. Plus, he was not only one of the best paddleball players from the golden era, but he was a mentor. Go back in the PFA archives and check out what Donnie Ciaffone had to say about Caesar: “While coming up in the sport at Bay 8th, a great legend named Caesar Polichetti took me under his wing and taught me discipline, technique and how to use my left hand.”
Caesar’s success in sports goes beyond paddleball. Overlapping his prime years, he was a serious and successful marathon runner. He competed in five NYC marathons, finishing them all, achieving a best time of 3:33. He put in many hours and miles training for these events. In his earlier days, he played table tennis competitively, winning a city-wide tournament in which there were over five thousand entries! After he wound down in paddleball, Caesar went back to handball where he was a good competitive player in this very demanding sport. It’s obvious that when Caesar decided to take up a sport, “I think I can!” would kick in.
Caesar goes down as one of the best and well-known players in paddleball history. He played against the great players from his era. He highlights these legends (but notes there were many others): Steve Rothfeld, Barry Scheiber, Bobby Schwarz, Andy Krosnick, Howie Solomon, Anthony Fiorino, Robert Chielli, Richie Miller, Glen Winokur, Andr’e (Hop) Hopkins, Craig Ruiz, Ralph Capogrosso, Bobby Fiorentino, Whitey Faber, Ray Gaston, Mike Melendez, Donnie Ciaffone and Anita Maldonado.
Present day, Caesar lives in Hollywood, Florida and continues to play in Garfield Park a couple of days a week. His regular partner is Phil Leone. Remarkably, he has had two knee replacements and three rotator cuff shoulder surgeries. Now playing the big ball game, he considers himself a “decent right-side defensive player.” And do you believe this? “No more arguments!” Also he still plays table tennis and even plays pickleball now and then.
Caesar loves the direction that paddleball has taken in the last few years with the PFA, led by the “sensational” work of Mike Melendez and his team and its emphasis on developing the children. “The kids are very lucky to have the role models that the Paddleball Family Alliance provides for them. Thank you Mike!”
Remember how “The Little Engine That Could” ended? “I thought I could. I thought I could.” Yes, that’s Caesar Polichetti and he sure could! (And still can!) If you have a young child or grandchild, get “The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper. Read it to them, they’ll love it! Think of Caesar.
Omaris Journet PFA Paddleball Profile No-35 by Kim Ramos
Omaris Journet has a big smile and an easy laugh. But don’t let that fool you! She is a dynamic left-handed competitor, always striving for perfection on the paddleball courts. Amazingly, she has been playing Big Blue for just over a year and is already one of the top female players in the game, never afraid to scrape a knee diving to get her shot. However, for Omaris her success in paddleball is not a surprise. Once she decides to do something, she expects nothing but the best from herself. She is a natural athlete and combined with her dedication, the sport comes easily for her.
On most weekends Omaris, also called Omi by her friends, drives down from Connecticut to play at her summer paddleball home of Orchard Beach or Zerega during the indoor season. Omaris has been playing racquetball for the last 11 years, but like many players over the past year, she has transitioned to the Big Blue game. She enjoys the sport of paddleball as a good cardio workout that’s good for all ages and provides a great sense of community/family.
There isn’t a player she models herself after, preferring to develop her own game. In describing her game, Omaris says she is not sure if she has developed her own style of play yet, but she likes a deep court shot and a chest shot. Her goal is to be consistent whenever she steps on the court. One player she enjoys watching and playing against is Miriam Silva. She says, “I do enjoy watching and playing against Miriam as I think she is a great player and she brings out the best in me.”
We asked Omaris what she thinks is needed to grow the sport and her response was, “I think the sport needs a lot more exposure (nationally). Our youth needs to be recruited to the sport in order for it to grow, and getting younger players sponsored will also help. Having conversations with racquet/paddle brands such as Gearbox and teaming up with them to host tournaments or jump in with the racquetball tourneys throughout the country would also help. Paddleball needs more money. Consider what handball has done to grow the sport: more money = more people = younger players = Bigger Sport! Handball players are great athletes that can help paddleball grow, as they have shown that the transition into paddle for them is pretty easy. But there has to be an incentive and for them; it’s money!”
Omaris has this advice for her fellow players “Do not let this game define you because this is not what you’ll be remembered for. Your legacy will be who you are and what you do off the court.”
Omaris’ athleticism is on display in the many other sports she participates in. She is a very good volleyball player, swimmer, softball player, and snowboarder. She also really enjoys playing table tennis, which gives her the good hands she possesses on the paddleball courts. One of her goals is participating in a triathlon before she reaches the age of 50.
Her interests outside of sports include her love of dogs; her favorite food is a good Vianda con gazpacho and she can play a mean clarinet.
Omaris Journet is quite a well-rounded person and athlete, and one of the up-and-coming stars of the paddleball game. This writer urges you to watch this dynamic lefty on the courts!
Mike Melendez Paddleball Player Profile No-36 by Dave Siegel
The Paddleball Family Alliance has inducted two greats into its Hall of Fame: Howie Hammer and John Bruschi. Everyone will agree that both are well deserving of this honor, but who should be next? You could make a case for several legends, but there is one player who must get major consideration because he actually qualifies twice! Mike I and Mike II. The paddleball world is well aware of Mike II, who is a present day top doubles player and the most significant contributor to the game since Mr. Paddleball, Howie Hammer. Without Mike’s tireless work during the past five years, the sport likely would have continued its downward spiral, but instead it is in the midst of a remarkable rebirth. But it occurred to me that some of today’s players may not be totally familiar with Mike I, who played in the golden age of paddleball and is the most dominant singles player ever.
Mike Melendez was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States at the age of fourteen, settling in the Bronx. He started out playing handball at Ogden Park and eventually transitioned to paddleball. One day a short time later, on his way to a Yankee game at the Stadium, as he passed the adjacent paddleball courts, Mike noticed a large crowd was gathered. They happened to be watching a paddleball tournament finals match and he stopped by to take a look. For the first time, he observed what paddleball played at a high level was like and loving what he saw, he immediately decided this is where he had to be. So Mike went back to Ogden and doing what he does best, he put in hours and hours of practice time. When he felt he was ready to move up to a higher level, he went back to the Stadium, but much to his chagrin, he was frozen out of the good games by the cliquish players. This fueled his desire to succeed even more and he persisted of course, and in a short time, he made it into the “A” game and eventually took great glee when he beat them all!
Throughout his life, he has had an intense desire for excellence and to strive for success. It is obvious that to him the only way to achieve his goal is through hard work and dedication. He didn’t get to be a great player with only his natural talent. Why singles? He now says that he gravitated to the singles game because he was in control of the court, not relying on a partner, and unlike present day, singles was big-time back then. He also loved (and still does) to practice his game without a partner. His training regimen is legendary, spending long hours perfecting his repertoire of shots. Back in his heyday, he would play or practice five hours a day, every day. Realizing that the angle serve was a great weapon in singles, Mike would place a can of soda in the corner by the short line, aimed for it with serve after serve, and actually hit it often. It also helped that he was a tennis fan and the great singles player Bjorn Borg was his sports idol. Mike Melendez went on to dominate the singles game during paddleball’s golden age, highlighted by winning six of seven Budweiser singles titles from 1980 to 86.
What type of player is Mike Melendez? He was (and is) a very offensive player, relentlessly attacking the ball using great angle shots and jams to put his opponent on the defensive, setting up his deadly put-away kill shots. But he is also a complete player who enjoys playing defensively. His motto is “Play the ball, do not let the ball play you.” Back in the 80s, Mike played paddleball with all his heart and soul, his life centered around the game, feeling that it would become his career. With the half million or so players in the tri-state area, major sponsorship in site, Mike says that he truly believed that paddleball was about to propel to a national game and become the next major sport. But, sadly, this was not to be.
In 1987 Mike took a “brief” 25 year hiatus. He took up a new sport: marathon running. As we all know, distance running requires intense training and Mike was surely not adverse to that. He ran ten marathons, finished them all, achieving a best time of 3:11. He also took up tennis, and became a “pretty good” player (his words). I bet he’s better than pretty good.
How did Mike II come to be? In 2012, he happened to stop by Van Cortlandt Park and watched some paddleball, and as he says, “a fire ignited inside me.” Also, he had become plagued by an ailing knee and had come to realize that covering a large tennis court was not the greatest idea. So Mike decided it was time for his paddleball comeback. Now living in New Jersey he, of course, practiced and practiced by himself near his home and when he felt he was ready, he returned to the game. Now a part of paddleball again, Mike took a step back and didn’t like everything he saw. Most of the players at the courts were playing racquetball, not paddleball. But the worst was that everyone was old! Where were the young adults and the kids? It’s great that older people played paddleball, but Mike knew the game would die out if there was not a big infusion of youth. And then it hit him: Paddleball was a great sport back in the 70s and 80s, but the key to its decline was that we forgot to invest in the youth! Mike was determined that we don’t make that mistake again!
In 2013, with the same dedication and hard work that defined Mike’s youth, he formed the Paddleball Family Alliance and it became a great vehicle to promote the game, attract players back to paddleball and most importantly get the youth to take up the game and stick with it. From the start, he knew that he would need lots of help along the way and turned to his trusted paddleball friends like Hoppy, Mitch, Kathy and Ray S. and they did not let him down. As the rolling snowball grew, many others have volunteered their time to further the cause. Knowing that money would be paramount to getting things done, he set up the PFA as a legitimate non-profit organization, which facilitated the recruitment of business sponsorship as well as individual donations. And indeed there has been strong financial support. Obviously, communication was key. He formed the Facebook group and web-site and used other social media outlets that became important in spreading the word. In order for paddleball people to get to know each other better (as in Paddleball Family), Mike organized get-togethers of players across the tri-state area (PowPows) and fostered the paddleball profile program. He addressed the thorny issue of inappropriate behavior on the court with a new Code of Conduct and made sure the PFA held the players accountable. Knowing there were still gaps and ambiguities in the rules, Mike organized the update of the rulebook and continues to communicate it. Mike always felt tournament competition was one of the keys to growing the game and the PFA has sponsored many successful tournaments. But, unquestionably the cornerstone of the PFA is the youth program: the successful kids clinics, the kids exhibitions at tournaments, and in the pipeline, the introduction of paddleball into the NYC high school system. And don’t forget the PFA slogan: “It’s all about the kids!” Speaking to Mike now about children in paddleball, it’s obvious where his passion is. He just loves teaching and helping kids improve their lives through paddleball. Even if there was no paddleball, Mike would for sure be involved in youth programs and teaching.
What about Mike Melendez, the person? He is a proud family man, with his beautiful wife, Maggie, three grown-up children and three grandchildren. He says he’s retired, for now… What does that mean? In the past, he has played many other sports besides paddleball, tennis and running marathons, including baseball, basketball, bowling and speed skating. But now, it’s pretty much paddleball, which he now plays twice a week. He’s also a celebrity. During the era of his singles dominance, Mike starred in a Budweiser commercial. No, he was not guzzling a brew, he was playing paddleball! Unfortunately, as much as we’d like to see it, Mike says it’s unavailable. But he can tell us all about it and how it almost never came to be.
What does Mike feel is most important for the sport to continue its upward spiral? It’s addressing the most significant factors in paddleball’s downfall after the 1980s. First, people must get involved by volunteering their time in one way or another in mentoring the kids and keeping them interested. Secondly, it’s setting the example of good sportsmanship and to support the efforts to make it part and parcel of the sport. Also we have to accept that the big-ball game has emerged and has overtaken the traditional small-ball. Though Mike loves the speed of small-ball, the big ball is easier to control and the game is more spectator-friendly because the rallies are longer. But at the end of the day, “It’s all about paddleball!”
Mike Melendez has become paddleball’s leader and inspiration. He has this message to everyone involved in the game today: “I want to thank all of my peers that are volunteering their time and energy in promoting our beloved sport of paddleball. Together we can do it. The future of paddleball is looking great!” Mike Melendez, You Got Next!
Jazz Jimmy Paddleball Profile No-37 by Mike Melendez
He has a low-key quiet demeanor, but don’t let that fool you! He is a music promoter, a paddleball promoter, loves to travel and can be found shopping in many of the high-end clothing stores around the city. He loves to eat out, as reflected by the tons of photos on his Facebook page of gourmet meals at restaurants around the city. I think the guy is working on his Gourmet Chef degree! But, like many of us, John Cherry, Jazz Jimmy as he likes to be called, feels most comfortable on the paddleball courts.
Jimmy’s paddleball story started thirty-five years ago at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn NY, where he was born and raised. The famous Carmine Street paddleball courts in the Village is where Jimmy fell in love with the sport back in the 80s. Jimmy recalls, “I used to go down to Carmine’s and watch the players from the gate and it was just the excitement that got me interested in the sport.” At Fort Greene there weren’t any top players, just regular locals playing, hanging out and having a good time. One winter Jimmy decided to take his game to George McFadden’s Paddle Sports indoor courts, looking to upgrade his skill by playing stiffer competition. At this facility he played with the likes of Jimmy Gibson, Godfrey Brown, Pineapple Eddie, Jimmy Hoey and Pete Pilarte. The next summer Jimmy came back to Carmine, this time not to watch from the gate, but to compete with the top players such as the late Clarence Davis, Andr’e Hopkins, Freddy Diaz and many others. Jimmy had arrived to the big league of paddleball!
He has always been a fan of most of the seasoned players, but the one player he looked up to was Robert Chielli. He said, “In my opinion Robert was the best right-side player and that’s why I love playing that side so much.” Jimmy is a very good player with pop in his right and a very good left hand. But the essence of his game is based on placement and smart shot selection. His favorite shot is down the right side and a deadly right to left cross-court. Not surprisingly, these are two of the shots Chielli was known for.
In the late 90s, like most players, he transitioned from paddleball to racquetball. The switch was primarily due to the lighter racquets and the lack of tournaments in paddleball. But, like the majority of players that made this transition, he has returned to the exciting game which he fell in love with back in the days of Carmine. Presently Jimmy plays paddleball twice a week. During the summer season, his home park is Colucci Park in the Bronx, where mainly big ball is played, and in the winter, it’s Zerega Indoor.
On the personal side, he is obviously a food lover and his favorite is West Indian cuisine. When it comes to sports role models, he has no favorite individual but he loves his football Giants. His other sport is basketball, which he also loves to play.
Back to paddleball, Jazz Jimmy is one of the paddleball players today actively promoting our beloved sport and is very well liked by the paddleball community. I asked Jimmy if he feels paddleball has a future. “I think the sport still has room for growth, we just need to promote it more. I think if we can get more organizations involved and pitch a group story about the game and keep getting the youth involved, it would grow.” I asked him how do we get there? “More players must volunteer and go out and work with the younger generation and teach them about this amazing sport.” I hear you Jimmy! He also said that “It would be great if we can continue to work together to support each other and recruit new players.” This writer agrees with you 100%, Jimmy! His advice to his paddleball peers is, “Continue to play paddle and enjoy what you know best and that’s Having Fun!” About the PFA, he said, “I think the PFA is doing an excellent job promoting the game, it is well organized and lots of information about the sport can be found in its paddleballfamily.com website.” Our sport needs more individuals like Jazz Jimmy!
Liz Colon Paddleball Profile #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!
Maria Serrano PFA Paddleball Player Profile #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.
Jasmine Suarez – Paddleball Player Profile #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!
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.
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!
Jewelz Santiago PFA Paddleball Player Profile #43 by Dave Siegel & Mike Melendez
“When you stop fighting things and just live, breathe, and try your best to treat people right, life just flows. It’s that simple.” – Anonymous
This quote, one of her favorites, aptly captures Jewelz Santiago. When you look at her life, it seems that Jewelz is just too good to be true. But this is really her: magnanimous, kind, dedicated, hard-working, humble, an animal lover, a physical fitness gym rat, a rags-to-riches success story and a loved-by-all true sportsperson. Yes, and those that know her will attest that it’s all true!
Jewlez is an eighteen-year veteran handball player who started playing paddleball only three years ago and has quickly emerged as one of the top female players in the game. Her life started out in the most humble manner in the Dominican Republic, a beautiful Caribbean nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti to the west. Currently 40.4% of the Dominican Republic’s people live in poverty, and 10.4% are in extreme poverty. Her parents left Jewelz and her siblings when she was five years old seeking to make a better life in the US for their children and they were reunited in the US five years later. The parents worked hard so that the kids could be provided with the basic essentials for living while enabling them to go to school. Jewelz persevered and advanced in her education, but never lost sight of her early years. She “gets up every day and works as if I am still living in the DR waiting for my parents to come get me.” Her industriousness paid off as she eventually became a successful businesswoman.
When we talk about Jewelz as magnanimous and a sportsperson, she is without peer in the paddleball community. She has been a significant sponsor in the AF tournaments and the PFA Youth program as well as other paddleball tournaments. She treats everyone with kindness, her fellow players with respect and is universally well-liked. This past year she became the first women’s winner of the prestigious Chris Lecakes Sportswoman of the Year award, which was a no-brainer. Jewelz says this was the most memorable moment in her paddleball career!
As with most paddleball players, she started in handball, partnering for a few years with Suly Ruiz, another ex-handballer who has also since become one of the best women paddleball players. They won a B doubles and placed high in many other handball tournaments. She first started playing paddleball when Suly, along with Manny Olmo, encouraged her to try paddleball at Garfield Park in Hollywood. She loved the game, became hooked, and immediately transitioned to paddleball – her home court is Castle Hill Playground in the Bronx. Jewelz’ style on the court is strictly offensive, always looking to attack, whether it be to hit a winner, to create a shot that will set herself up or to set up her partner for a good shot. She likes to mix up her shots with killers, drives and lobs, a shot which she is especially fond of. She says she loves everything about paddleball, especially the people. “The welcoming I received when I started was like no other. The encouragement from everyone, I don’t think there is a better sports community out there. The love and care is FELT!” She is a sweetheart but as Suly told us, “She hates soft games when people are not playing hard… or always laughing when playing. She wants that serious intense game!” Say, wouldn’t it be awesome if Jewelz and Sully teamed up in tournaments?
We asked Jewelz what she thinks can be done to improve organized paddleball and the PFA in particular and she provided some excellent input. She would like to see more confident and knowledgeable refereeing and players themselves should do a better job of learning the rules. The PFA can expand its horizons by enlisting the parents of the Youth Clinic participants to help recruit others and also encourage the students themselves to get their friends involved.
Jewelz also had some solid thoughts on promoting the growth of the sport. One important potential source is the handball community, which as we know is quite large. Approaching them with paddles and trying to get them to give it a try is the way she got hooked and an organized effort of this type could certainly get more new paddleball recruits. Also, approaching the schools that have handball teams and encouraging them to have paddleball options is another great idea.
What is Jewelz’ highlight on the paddleball court? She cites a mixed doubles tournament victory against the huge favorite Lisa Michaelessi, one of the best of all the women players, a game though that was fraught with arguments. She said the crowd was amazing and when her team won, it was a great feeling.
Jewlez is a private person, so many of you may not know the information we are about to reveal about Jewelz: Her favorite color is orange (summer sun), favorite food is seafood, sports heroes are Nadal and Djokovic and she used to play softball and volleyball. Jewlez’ love of animals can be readily seen with her two dogs, Nela and Daisy. She loves to cook and considers herself the chef for her family and circle of friends. Jewelz is a dedicated athlete, spending much time in the gym working out, toning her body and maintaining physical fitness. And her favorite sport is none other than paddleball!
How can we sum up Jewelz Santiago? Well, she does it best: “I believe in Kindness. There is no better feeling than when someone is Kind to us without any hidden agenda. Kindness is more contagious than evil. If only we would spread more of it, the world would be a better place.”
Well Jewelz, the paddleball community is in a better place because of you!
Karen Cardillo PFA Paddleball Player Profile #44 by Dave Siegel & Mike Melendez