They don’t play on fields, courts or diamonds but instead use tables. Paddles replace sticks and rackets. Instead of playing in packed, noisy stadiums or gymnasiums, they host competitions in quiet lunchrooms or common areas.
Despite those major differences with other high school sports, table tennis athletes view their game as gaining respect and popularity throughout the metro area.
“What surprised me the most when I joined three years ago was how competitive everyone is,” Eagan senior Joe Rohlf said. “It’s pingpong. You see the guys in the Olympics screaming, but you get into the high school side of it and you don’t think it will be that intense. But it is.”
The table tennis season begins in December and concludes with a state tournament Feb. 12 at Holy Angels in Richfield.
Eagan’s table tennis passion was evident in its participation numbers this season. Coach Scott Nichols founded the team in 2005, when there were only three other teams in Minnesota. This year, he said, more than 50 boys and 20 girls tried out for Eagan’s team.
Due to limited playing space, the boys’ team only kept 14 players. The girls’ team has 10, making it the largest girls’ team in the state.
In 2005, Henry Sibley, Eden Prairie and Eastview joined Eagan as the four Minnesota schools with table tennis clubs. Eleven years later, 22 teams competed in last season’s state tournament.
Eagan’s dominance has been a staple of the table tennis scene.The Wildcats won three state championships from 2006 to 2009 and a fourth in 2012.
But as the sport’s growing popularity led to table tennis teams at more schools, the level of competition has evened out.
“You can become reasonably confident in the sport without being a world-class athlete,” Orono coach Mike Kasner said. ‘‘You don’t have to be 6-foot-5. You don’t have to bench press 300 pounds, and you don’t have to run a 4.3-second 40.”
A typical dual meet involves 10 singles and five doubles matches, with girls and boys competing as a co-ed team. Each match is worth one point.
Kasner said table tennis’ inclusive nature is a large reason the sport has seen such a growth in Minnesota over the past decade. Nationally, over 40 colleges compete annually in the National College Table Tennis Championships.
For Kasner, whose son John plays in the No. 1 spot for Orono, table tennis is a game his family has used to bond. John’s twin brother and 12-year-old brother all play in their family basement. Mike Kasner said the beauty of the sport comes out when he can play his 12-year-old in competitive games despite their age difference.
“We have a robot ball machine and tend to throw the music on in the basement and just hit the ball around,” Kasner said.
Similar to how table tennis helps unite the Kasner family, Mounds View junior Emily Su uses the game to connect with others in her school and on a national scale.
Su said she started playing table tennis at national tournaments during her freshman year, but her busy schedule has not allowed her to compete as frequently as she would like.
On top of managing her grades, having a social life and preparing for college, Su also serves as captain and team manager of Mounds View’s table tennis team.
Unlike Eagan and Orono, who have Nichols and Kasner volunteering their time to coach, Mounds View has no coach. That means it’s up to Su to organize practice times, scrimmage dates and transportation to tournaments.
But her efforts have been more than worth it, she said. The Mustangs are three-time defending state champions in both the boys’ and girls’ divisions.
As table tennis grows, the next and likely most challenging step, Su said, is to seek Minnesota State High School League sanction.
“It should make for a very good high school state sport,” Su said.