By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
When Isabella Kearns first started going to the Brooklyn Heights Casino she was there to play tennis. She never played squash, but would see other kids her age playing and seemingly having the time of their lives. It wasn’t long until Kearns wanted to be apart of it.
“I would always see everyone playing squash upstairs, but I was a tennis player and I didn't play squash,” Kearns recalled. “Everyone always looked like they were having so much fun, though, that one day I just went upstairs and said that I wanted to play squash. After that I got hooked pretty quickly and quit tennis.”
Just a few years later and Kearns is now ranked 37th in the country in her age bracket, Girl’s Under-15. She is one of 29 kids at the Heights Casino that made Junior Gold Nationals with the majority of them ranked in the top 32 in the country in their respective age brackets.
“The program at the Heights Casino is definitely one of the top three programs of its kind in the United States,” said Omar Elkashef, one of the coaches at the Casino. “You could argue which is the best, but because of the size of this program, we have 170 kids here and roughly 30 of them play in Gold Nationals, this is definitely one of the best.”
This is not some kind of powerhouse program where the best kids from around the country move to Brooklyn to partake in it. Instead, most of the kids are locals and the few that aren’t are from far away lands like Manhattan.
What makes this program so successful is the fact that it has a staff of great coaches, led by Linda Elriani, that keep the kids motivated and really try to foster a sense of community that leaves them wanting to play.
“What makes this different from other programs like it is that sense of community,” said Anders Larson, who is currently ranked ninth in the Boys Under-19 bracket. “It’s not just training, they really want us to become friends, to have fun with each other. When we practice, we’re excited to play because we’re playing against our friends and you develop these fun rivalries with them.”
Elriani, the director of squash at the Casino, turned pro in 1990. She won 15 tour finals during her career including the British National Championship title in 2005. She reached a career-high ranking of World No. 3 in 2000, the same year she won the World Team Squash Championships as captain of the England team. She retired from the professional tour in 2006 and has since worked at the Heights Casino.
"Linda has been here for about five or six years and she does so many things so well,” Elkashef said. “She was ranked World No. 3 when she played so there aren't many that are better qualified to be a coach and she handles the kids so well. She has a way of talking to them that gets them to listen.“
“With 170 kids involved, she handles them and their parents so well. She's organized and everyone loves her. If you went looking for someone to say a bad thing about her it won't be easy."
Perhaps the biggest thing Elriani has done recently to improve the Heights' program has been to introduce the "accelerated program" which has the kids training six or seven times a week including weekly 6:00 a.m. practices.
That’s the not-so-fun part though. To keep the kids motivated, she has introduced a mentor program where older kids are paired with younger ones to help them in their training. Kids in the middle groups can even have their own mentor while they mentor somebody younger than them. There is also a sticker-board points system which rewards kids for certain tasks during practice.
“There are so many kids here and the competition is so tough that it makes you a better player,” Larson said. “That's not different from a lot of other programs though. What makes this different are some of the things that Linda has done to try to foster this sense of community. The mentoring program, the competition, accelerated program, the sticker board. It's little things that stand out to me that make this program different and so successful."
The 29 kids that made Junior Gold Nationals from the Heights Casino include (age bracket and national ranking in parenthesis): Emily Sherwood (GU19/32nd), Katrina Northrop (GU19/71), Jane Pincus (GU17/14), Lucy Martin (GU17/27), Katie Manternach (GU15/32), Isabella Kearns (GU15/37), Christina Leonard (GU15/89), Sophia Velazquez (GU13/11), Lark Ervasti (GU13/13), Noor Valvani (GU13/16), Ella Lungstrum (GU13/28), Maddie Whoriskey (GU13/36), Naaz Valvani (GU11/6), Josey Klein (GU11/7), Isabella Ronda (GU11/21), Quincy Cline (GU11/36), Anders Larson (BU19/9), David Pincus (BU19/66), Andrew Douglas (BU17/14), Harrison Boyer (BU17/27), Teddy Best (BU15/10), Tiber Worth (BU15/24), Henry Martin (BU15/31), Max Velasquez (BU13/11), Alex Bernhard (BU13/21), Tate Suratt (BU13/28), Jack Lungstrum (BU13/74), Tobey Suratt (BU11/11), and Hollis Robertson (BU11/21).