When Eden Prairie’s badminton program was in its second year, coach John Becker wrote to athletic directors around the Lake Conference about the sport.
Flash forward 15 years and only two conference schools — and three total suburban schools — offer badminton.
“I’m still at a loss for why other schools don’t have it,” Becker said.
The sport is going strong at two western suburban schools. Eden Prairie, now in its 16th year with badminton, hovers around 50 team members and Edina, in its fifth year, is up to 75 players.
The Hornets’ program started with about 35 girls. Last year that number hit a high mark of 90 players.
Coaches Margo and Steve Henke didn’t envision that outcome when their youngest daughter decided to swap her tennis racket for a lighter, airier badminton racket, helping form the team.
But since that point, plenty of players have followed suit.
Many girls gravitate toward the badminton in high school even though it lacks the youth program infrastructure of other sports.
“Edina [has] such a high level of success at everything, and sometimes that disenfranchises girls,” Steve Henke said. “If you haven’t started soccer when you’re 5, you’re never going to make a varsity team. That kind of thing. So, we’ve really encouraged girls [that there is] a place for high level competition yet something that a lot of girls can get involved with that maybe would never, ever have a shot at one of these major sport varsity teams.”
Though badminton attracts some players who don’t play other sports, multisport athletes have also taken it up.
Volleyball players, in particular, have a skill-set that translates. Henke said volleyball players use the same overhead motion and have the hand-eye coordination necessary to be successful.
But many of Edina and Eden Prairie’s players never have played badminton before.
Edina senior Annie Moorhead picked up the sport as a sophomore. She was looking for a sport that would fit her schedule, and badminton was less taxing on her time. Like many others, Moorhead didn’t have experience in the sport before joining the team.
“It would be great for Edina if we started a middle school team. It would really help out the high school team because you could just have girls who have that much more experience holding a racket,” Moorhead said.
Though Edina doesn’t have a middle school program, Eden Prairie’s was developed partly as a result of the successful high school team. Becker said the program at the middle school offers kids an opportunity to play, though they get less instruction at that level.
City schools — especially in St. Paul — have a much more concrete infrastructure for the sport, with girls picking it up earlier. Harding and Johnson, especially, have dominated the state badminton scene in the past decade.
The sport is especially popular at city schools in part because of larger Hmong communities.
“[At] Edina we have a large amount of diversity for a west metro school, but I know that badminton is very much associated with a lot of … cultures and so I think it kind of came from those cultures and having a large amount of Hmong or Chinese or Indian students at the school and so they got badminton first,” Moorhead said.
Edina and Eden Prairie are holding their ground and eager for other schools to join in. Low equipment costs and gym availability in the spring would make it easier for other suburban schools to follow suit.
“We’ve been trying to work with other schools to get [badminton],” Henke said. “I think it’s a matter of time because it’s worked at Eden Prairie [and] is very successful at Burnsville and Edina. I mean, people have seen what we’ve done and it’s just ready to happen. … It seems like what I hear form other coaches is they’re all sort of on the edge, and I think they just need a leader — somebody that’s going to step forward.”
Betsy Helfand is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.