By HOWARD SENZELL
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The perception that an athlete must take up a sport at an early age in order to excel isn’t always true.
For example, Jennie Tong and Blake Deal, All-Empire Players of the Year in badminton, didn’t even learn the rules of their sport until they were freshmen.
Turns out they were naturals. Tong, playing for Montgomery High, has lost once in her high school career. Deal, who competed for Maria Carrillo, dropped only one match his junior and senior seasons.
Those are lofty records considering neither thought about badminton as their sport of choice when beginning high school.
Deal wound up going out for the team after he was cut from the freshman baseball squad. Tong decided to try out because of her desire to experience as many sports as possible.
“I was bummed when I got cut from baseball,” Deal said. “One of my friends told me the badminton team was practicing in the gym, so I went to check it out. I didn’t know the rules or where to stand on the court.
“I’d played some backyard badminton, but there was really no skill involved. I just tried to hit the (shuttlecock) over the net as hard as I could.”
Coach Kevin Albritton invited the novice to try out and put him on the junior varsity team. At nearly 6-foot tall and with quickness, he had potential.
Deal learned quickly and moved up to the varsity before his freshman season ended. By then, he was hooked on his new sport.
He began going to University of Sports in Rohnert Park, where the best players in the area would meet regularly for pick-up games. He also journeyed to the Bay Area to train with some of the top older players in Northern California.
“Blake has always had real quick hands, which you need to become a good badminton player,” Albritton said. “After becoming a student of the game, he’s learned placement. Add to that a strong smash and that’s why he developed into a strong player.”
While Deal now stands 6-foot-2, Tong is a foot shorter but is just as deadly at placing the shuttlecock.
She came to badminton because she plans to be a physical education teacher and wanted to play different sports in high school.
“Jennie has all the strokes,” coach Mary Lehman said. “Strokes plus endurance are what makes her an outstanding player.
“She’s totally dedicated. At practice, she loves to play the guys on the team. She’s awesome.”
Tong will be back for her senior season. Deal has graduated and is attending Santa Rosa JC.
ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
Boy: Blake Deal, Maria Carrillo, senior
Girl: Jennie Tong, Montgomery, junior
Garrett Beaudry, Casa Grande, senior
Tyler Krause, Montgomery, junior
Steve Lau, Maria Carrillo, senior
Eric Liang, Montgomery, senior
Albert Nguyen, Montgomery, junior
Jason Nguyen, Windsor, sophomore
Scott Olson, Maria Carrillo, senior
Michael Piazza, Windsor, junior
Parthiv Sheth, Maria Carrillo, senior
Alex Trinh, Santa Rosa, junior
Casey Carpenter, Windsor, senior
Tiffany Giang, Windsor, junior
Maddie Johnson, Maria Carrillo, senior
Nina Mendia, Windsor, senior
Julie Nguyen, Windsor, senior
Marissa Nguyen, Maria Carrillo, junior
Caitlin Pingrey, Maria Carrillo, senior
Claudia Rohrs, Santa Rosa, junior
Laura Walters, Montgomery, senior
Kai Williams, Montgomery, senior
COACH OF THE YEAR: Phil Ma, Windsor