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2002 USHA National Men's Open Singles
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Photo by Holly Koffler-Wooley
|The action was as intense as the heat when Pee-Wee and Joe battled it out for the championship.
One of the great things about watching championship sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, World Series, or Boxing matches is hoping an underdog can upset all the predictions and create magic that we'll remember for years to come.
Fathers still tell their children about the miracle Mets of '69. Joe Namath's boast of "I guarantee that we'll win" is part of sports folklore. Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson is one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Well, such a Cinderella story was written in the 2002 USHA National Championships. In a star making performance that will be remembered for years by all who witnessed it, Yuber "Pee-Wee" Castro was magnificent in slamming in the singles and doubles.
The pre-tournament favorites mentioned to capture the singles included the current champ Cesar Sala, former winners Joe Durso, Joe Kaplan and Robert Sostre as well the Satish Jagnandan who vanquished all in this year's Mayor's Cup and Bailey Park singles.
How about Pee-Wee? Nice big blue player, but too inexperienced in small ball to be given a chance was the general opinion. One of the bettors even laid him $200 to $10 that he couldn't win the singles. After all, he was entering only his second Nationals.
Let's stop for a moment and think about what experts look for in judging athletes. They put them through a battery of tests. They time their speed, measure their strength and test their reflexes. But the one thing you can not measure; that you have to be born with is heart. How many athletes can you recall that possessed tremendous physical tools but never acheived the greatness predicted for them. And how many lesser skilled performers have you seen seize the moment when their were doubters all around them. It comes down to heart, desire and fight.
How many times have you heard a baseball manager or football coach point NOT to one of his stars and say "give me a team with more players like him and I'll take on anybody." That's the kind of heart Pee-Wee displayed in overcoming 4 days of oppressive heat and humidity, injury, and more skilled players than himself.
Pee-Wee, nicknamed so because of his size, comes up big in all those qualities that coaches look for and fans love to watch.
Pee-Wee began his assent to the top with a win over paul Williams. Paul's varied roles and responsibilities in the USHA keep him from being sharp resulting in the first hurdle for Pee-Wee. Next up was the current National and World singles champion Cesar Sala. If you make a checklist of all the handball skills (serve, opposite hand, power and speed) Cesar could come out on top. But I'm sure you've heard the expression "the game is not played on paper". Pee-Wee outlasted cesar in an exciting 3 game match. he did it by bringing his big blue game to small ball; which features a devasting overhand serve with tremendous pace and power behind it. He almost resembles a tennis player when serving.
Next up was Joe Durso who had pulled off a big upset in beating Sostre in 3 games. Durso has faced Sostre many times with Sostre winning all, with the exception of their first meeting at the '97 Nationals, of their encounters prior to Sunday. Their many classic battles reminds me of two figthers who have met many times in the ring, leaving their blood and sweat on the canvas and a resoect for each other. Joe took the early rounds with a 15-5 lead in the first game that had a thrilling 21-20 ending. Robert came back with a vengance taking the middle rounds with a 21-1 second game win. Joe took the late rounds, after a long controversy in which Sostre was denied a ball change and eventually charged with a technical for throwing the ball away, and the decision with an 11-8 victory in the tiebreaker.
At an age where most players would drop down to the Masters, Joe can now boast of wins over Jagnandan and Sostre in the last two Nationals.
The young and brash Joe Durso demanded respect based solely on his play. The older Joe is garnering respect and cheers for two decades of excellence. I wouldn't be surprised to see him enter next year in his quest for another title.
Joe's startegy was to overplay to the left. But that only gave Pee-Wee numerous opporunities to serve to an open right side. Pee-Wee's young legs and stamina led to a two game victory.
That set the stage for Pee-Wee versus Joe Kaplan. Despite three impressive victories, the feeling I got from the crowd before the match was Kaplan in two straight games. Joe took the first game 21-12, Pee-Wee stormed back to take the second game 21-14. There is that word heart again.
That set the stage for one of the most thrilling finishes I've ever seen. Joe jumped out to a 6-0 lead. I think at that time the small ball establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief, that the title would remain with a small ball player, not a big blue player. But Pee-Wee knotted the score at 7-7, setting the scene for a furious finish. You could hear the crowd cheer for each well played point or moan for each error as if they were in the game. It was a roller coaster of emotions. But just as it looked like the ride would end, Kaplan served out at match point! Pee-Wee took advantage of that costly mistake to win 11-10.
The first person to greet him was his lovely girlfriend, Brenda, who jumped into his arms and the well deserved celebration began.
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