Texas Wesleyan Table Tennis
As sports dynasties go, Texas Wesleyan University ranks among the best.
The private university’s table tennis squad has won 11 straight national championships and will continue its quest for a “12-peat” this weekend when a regional tournament kicks off on the Rams’ home court in east Fort Worth.
Not many college or professional teams in any sport can claim a dozen consecutive championships. The University of Arkansas won 12 straight NCAA indoor track titles from 1984 to 1995, but otherwise the list is pretty short.
Even the legendary UCLA men’s basketball program, which won 10 titles (including seven straight) from 1964 to 1975, falls short of Texas Wesleyan.
It’s a record that has not gone unnoticed in the table tennis world.
“Together, we just want to win one time, ” said Cheng Li, coach and captain of Mississippi College’s team, ranked No. 2 and perhaps the Rams’ closest rival.
“We have to compete with Texas Wesleyan because they have been winning this for 11 years and we lost to them in the finals in three [consecutive] years, ” said Li, last year’s singles national champion.
Fun and free
For North Texans who want to check out something a little different, this weekend’s National Collegiate Table Tennis Association South Regional Tournament offers a chance to watch some of the best players in the world — for free.
Teams from Texas and across the Southeast are scheduled to compete in the team matches, which begin at 2 p.m. Saturday at Texas Wesleyan’s Sid Richardson Center gym. Many of the coed, men’s and women’s players are from China and other countries with experience in competitions such as the Olympics and Pan American Games.
Other in-state competitors include the University of Texas at Austin, UT San Antonio, UT Dallas and Texas A&M.
Out-of-state teams include Mississippi College, the University of Miami (Fla.), Florida, Central Florida, Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Sunday’s action will feature singles competitions from 9 a.m. until about noon.
Admission and parking are free on both days.
Teams that advance will compete in the national championship April 10-12 in Eau Claire, Wis.
‘Not your grandfather’s pingpong’
Table tennis is a fringe sport in the United States, although it’s a decades-old pastime in basements, college dormitories and rec centers across the land. Most Americans probably know the sport by its more casual name — pingpong.
But competitive table tennis — which is serious stuff in countries such as China, Hungary and the Czech Republic — is a far different experience.
Spectators can expect to witness athletes in top physical condition, receiving lightning-fast serves 10 feet away from the table.
“This is not your grandfather’s pingpong, ” said Texas Wesleyan President Fred Slabach, who happened to do undergraduate work at rival Mississippi College. “This is highly competitive, athletic table tennis. It is action-packed and really extraordinary to watch.”
A certain amount of chesslike mental toughness is required as well. Players must not only respond to an opponent’s shot but also initiate their own response and anticipate what the opponent might do with the next volley — often in a split second.
“Mentally, I believe that’s more important than the physical work, ” said Emil Santos, a Texas Wesleyan sophomore from the Dominican Republic who won the national singles title two years ago. “It’s not a very short game. A best-of-seven match can go more than an hour.”
Underdogs vs. favorites
For Mississippi College, this weekend’s competition is a step toward facing Texas Wesleyan in the national final for the fourth straight year. The Choctaws lost to the Rams in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Even so, weird things can happen in regional tournaments. Mississippi College beat the Rams in the 2013 regionals, only to lose in the nationals.
In regional tournaments, the top three finishers typically advance, and there’s also a wild-card spot. But the regional champion is often targeted by the others for elimination.
“Whoever wins Saturday will face more pressure, ” Texas Wesleyan coach Jasna Rather said.
Mississippi College’s leadership isn’t engaging in trash talk and isn’t interested in placing any friendly wagers on Saturday’s competition.