Win number 358 resembled many of the previous 357 victories by
the Miller Place (N.Y.) High badminton team. On April 2 the
Panthers won all 13 singles and doubles matches against visiting
Patchogue-Medford High. That's how Miller Place beats most of
its opponents in Suffolk County, on Long Island. The No. 1 boys'
singles match was typical: 18-year-old Patchogue senior Mike
Knauer got a 20-minute lesson in the thrust and parry of
high-caliber badminton from 15-year-old Miller Place sophomore
Kanowsky, 5'3" and 110 pounds, sports a wedge haircut and walks
with attitude, but he was careful not to appear to be toying
with Knauer. He moved the birdie and his 6-foot, 202-pound
opponent around the court, feathering drop shots just beyond
Knauer's lunging reach, firing 100 mph overhead smashes past
Knauer and, after some of their rallies, leaving the older boy
shaking his head in amazement and frustration. "Yes! I got the
serve!" Knauer growled when one of his shots finally hit the
floor on Kanowsky's side of the net.
Kanowsky won the best-of-three match 15-2, 15-1. On the last
point he sent Knauer sprawling onto the floor, where he lay
facedown for a few seconds before picking himself up and shaking
Kanowsky's hand. "The kid's good," Knauer said, sizing Kanowsky
up again. "You don't get anything past him. He's only 15?"
"I just try to keep the rallies going," said Kanowsky dryly,
taking another look at Knauer. "He's only 18?"
"There's not a lot of drama to these events," said Miller
Place's diminutive coach, 51-year-old Pat McCarrick, resplendent
in a red sweat suit with a stitched shuttlecock on the back.
"It's a learning experience every time we play them," said
Patchogue coach Terri Breen, whose players have yet to win one
individual match against Miller Place in her three seasons as
coach. "Their experience is overwhelming."
So is Miller Place's record. As of May 3 the Panthers had won
365 consecutive matches since McCarrick fielded the school's
first varsity team (then just for girls) 23 years ago. It's the
longest-known winning streak in the history of U.S.
professional, collegiate or scholastic sports.
High school varsity badminton isn't widespread in the U.S.; it's
played in only seven states by some 350 schools. The National
Federation of State High School Associations doesn't even write
rules for the sport or list it in its record book. Miller
Place's success is that of a big fish in a small and shrinking
pond. The Panthers' schedule is limited to the six other high
school badminton teams in Suffolk County; a few years ago,
before local budgets were cut, there were more than a dozen.
Miller Place has won every county championship since the first
one, in 1975.
Unfortunately, that's as far as the Panthers can go. There are
30 high school teams in neighboring Nassau County, but Miller
Place hasn't played any of them since the last all-Long Island
championship, in 1983. There's no New York State championship,
either, because there are not enough schools represented across
six of the 11 state sections to satisfy the requirements for
staging a tournament.
So Miller Place steps up to better competition by sending a club
team to contests around the country and to the Yonex U.S. Junior
National Badminton Championships each spring. Since 1978 the
Panthers have won 116 gold medals in national age-group singles
and doubles. During the last six years the Miller Place club
team has had the help of two world-class coaches, first, Jian
Liu of China and, most recently, Steve Butler of England.
McCarrick started playing badminton as a physical education
major at Syracuse University, from which she graduated in 1966.
She took to the game quickly and became one of the top-ranked
women in the country. When she arrived at Miller Place as a
phys-ed teacher in 1970, McCarrick and then athletic director
Don Pranzo agreed that junior high and high school students
would get more out of their gym classes if they concentrated on
one sport each semester. They also agreed that badminton was a
good sport to start with, since the basic skills it requires are
easy to learn. For 26 years every seventh-grader at Miller Place
has played a half year of badminton in gym class.
McCarrick found that to compete in tournaments she needed more
time to play and better players to train with, so she started an
after-school club, inviting anyone interested in the game--junior
high students, high school students, varsity team members and
even their parents--to play in the evenings. She sent the older
kids to play exhibitions for elementary school classes, and
before long there were 75 people batting birdies around the gym
each night. "You'd hit 20 serves or play a game to five, then go
to the back of the line and wait for 20 minutes," says senior
Dawn McNamara, 18, who has played on the Miller Place varsity
since the seventh grade and is now the Panthers' No. 1 girls'
singles player and a two-time national doubles champion. "I
think I spent more time in line than I did playing. But
everybody loved it."
McCarrick won three 35-and-over nationals singles titles, but in
1990, slowed by a bad back, she stopped training. Not long
afterward she heard that Liu, who was coaching the Sri Lankan
national team, was looking for a job in the U.S. McCarrick hired
him to help coach the club and started charging heftier dues to
pay him a salary. When Liu left in 1994 to coach in Chicago, the
Miller Place club hired Butler, 32, who had been a member of the
British national team for 12 years.
Butler and McCarrick took 28 players to this year's junior
nationals, which were held April 4-7 at the Georgia State
University Sports Arena in Atlanta, site of the upcoming Olympic
badminton competition. It was the fifth national tournament for
Kanowsky, who won a gold medal in the under-14 mixed doubles two
years ago with teammate Alison Brown. This year he was seeded
third in the under-16 boys' singles. Four days after his romp
over Knauer he found himself staring across the Georgia State
net at a familiar rival, second-seeded Trevor Lai of Dover,
Mass., in a semifinal match. Kanowsky had beaten Lai a month
earlier in the New England Junior Open tournament. In Atlanta
they split the first two games, but, unable to find his rhythm,
Kanowsky fell behind quickly in the third and lost to Lai 15-8.
"I beat myself," he said afterward. "I gave him a lot of easy
shots. I gave him a lot of points."
Overall, it was a successful though less-than-stellar junior
nationals for Miller Place, which won a single gold medal--eight
fewer than last year--and 12 silvers. (Their archrival, the club
from Manhattan Beach, Calif., won 13 golds and two silvers.)
Kanowsky finished second in the under-16 boys' doubles with
partner Ken Claffie and won a second silver medal in mixed
doubles, with Brown.
The Panthers' star was 18-year-old Katie Maloney, the club's
winningest player in nationals competition. Maloney is an
all-county setter for the Miller Place girls' volleyball team,
and in a volleyball game eight days before the junior nationals
she had severely sprained her right ankle. With the ankle iced,
taped and supported by an air cast, she outwitted Jia Hu of Palo
Alto, Calif., 11-7 and 11-0, to win the under-18 girls' singles,
her 12th national title in six years.
"I guess if I'd just stuck to badminton, this would've been
easier," Maloney said, making it clear that she was happier to
have done it the hard way. "Honestly, playing for the high
school team gets old when you've been killing your opponents
since eighth grade."
Despite their one-sidedness, the Panthers' high school matches
are hardly grim affairs. Opposing coaches and players have
learned to find the fun in certain and swift defeat. Commack
High, Miller Place's 250th victim, showed up for the match
wearing T-shirts that said 250 on the front and MILLER WHO? on
the back. And at some point in almost every match there's a
triumphant shout of "I scored a point!"
Barring, say, a teamwide flu attack, the Panthers' winning
streak will continue, though it will do so without Butler. After
the junior nationals, he told McCarrick that he had accepted the
position of head coach of the U.S. national team. That means
McCarrick will be looking for a replacement. She'll consider all
applicants, but only big winners need apply.
Jim Harmon, a freelance writer from Long Beach, N.Y., is
strictly a backyard badminton player.