The little racquetball club over on Springbrook Drive has turned out some excellent players through the years, and it has the hardware to prove it.
Three longtime Johnson City Racquetball Club members added prominently to the collection last weekend when they brought home medals from the Summer National Senior Games in Houston. Jane Snyder won gold in doubles and silver in singles, while Rick Bearfield earned a silver medal in singles and teamed with Steve Fox for a bronze.
All in all, it was a prideful showing for JCRC, which has been quietly going about its business for 32 years now.
“For this little club here to produce three medalists on a national level speaks volumes for the club itself,” said Bearfield, who has been playing there since 1983. “Playing on a weekly basis, you’re always trying to improve. That club always seems to have an expectation of excellence, and it started a long time ago with (owner) Steve Miller, his brother Wayne and his son Wesley.”
Wesley was a three-time national juniors champion who used to humble the old guys at the club when he was still in elementary school. He’s now 35 and a force to be reckoned with down in Bradenton, Fla. He captured the Florida Open in Sarasota last weekend, prevailing in a field that included the reigning U.S. Amateur and Elite 30 champions.
For Steve Miller, it was a treasured run of success by family and friends. The latter certainly kept him in mind as they made their way to Texas and back.
“They actually brought me a trophy ... it almost brought me to tears,” said Miller. “It’s the most excited I’ve been about racquetball in a long time.”
Snyder, who turned 60 earlier this year, is a decorated veteran in the game who has played at JCRC since it opened its doors. She has also been into mountain biking and hiking. Bearfield calls her “a superior talent who can play with just about anybody.”
Snyder won state championships to qualify for the national games and, like fine wine, continues to get better with age.
“My game has picked up like I can’t believe,” she said. “I’m hitting the ball better, thinking about it more. Part of it is Steve coaching me more mentally, and I’ve been picking Wesley’s brain — how you know what to do and when to do it kind of stuff.
“I think playing singles more, my overall game has gotten better. I’m tickled to death.”
The only opponent who could beat Snyder in Houston was Sandra Gross of Memphis, by a score of 15-5, 15-14 in the women’s 60-64 final. The two then joined forces to win the doubles.
“We’re fairly new as friends and had only played together a couple of times,” said Snyder, a Johnson City pharmacist. “It’s one of those deals where you meet somebody and feel like you’ve known them forever. We get along well and our playing styles are complementary. We have fun playing together.
“Last time we met, I beat her. It can go either way on any given day.”
Meanwhile, Snyder’s lawyer friends were enjoying spirited battles as well. Bearfield and Fox each worked their way through their respective pool play and into the main draw in singles.
Fox was eliminated 15-9, 15-6 in the quarterfinals of the men’s 60-64 by a guy named Billy Adkins of Blair, Texas.
“We had these rallies that seemed like days,” said Fox. “More than once we had to go out and ask the crowd who had served the point. We couldn’t remember.”
Bearfield battled into the final in men’s 55-59, where he lost to Dan Nunn of Charlotte 15-6, 15-8. Fox was serving as his coach by then, though he didn’t have a lot of tactical advice during the break.
“I got through with the first game and walked over to Steve,” said Bearfield. “There were probably 25 people watching the match. Steve just looked at me and said, ‘He’s really good.’ I said, ‘I know that. Tell me something that will help.’”
Said Fox with a chuckle, “Rick just looks at me, and I feel like I should say something. This guy from Charlotte just wasn’t missing anything. Rick played tremendous and was behind. The guy was really good.”
Bearfield and Fox, an intuitive righty-lefty team, captured the bronze in men’s 55-59 doubles with a 15-14, 15-7 victory over Bertini-Blankenship of Texas.
Bearfield says the whole atmosphere in Houston was impressive.
There were almost 12,000 athletes competing in 18 sports in the Senior Games, which are held every other year. (Cleveland will play host in 2013.) Texans enjoyed the home-court advantage, of course, and had about 10 percent of the competitors. Oddly enough, Tennessee was second, with 552.
“To be able to compete on a national level, and be competitive, it kind of gives you a different reward,” said Bearfield. “You’re playing people from all over the country, and you had no idea how they would play. It was a chance to assess your level of play.
“I think we were all pleased with where we ended up. I have to say that I was surprised that I was able to play competitively at that level. I just had no frame of reference.”
It was all far removed from those steamy sessions at JCRC.
There’s a group of regulars who get together to pound the walls with those little rubber balls every week on Tuesday and Thursday nights. It’s always excellent competition and camaraderie, usually capped by a cold beverage after a couple of hours on the court.
The bonds have been decades in the making. And so has the confidence.
“I had a hard time convincing these guys how good they are,” said Miller.
Bearfield, who turns 59 in October, is more of a believer now.
“The influence of Steve Miller, his experience in tournament play, he gave us a great deal of assistance and coaching before we went down to Houston,” he said. “But there’s a number of people at his club who could go out to these big tournaments and compete. You really have to understand how good the local competition is.”