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The state champions like Nick Caletri, Jacob Richard and Sarah Bourgeois are gone on this particular Wednesday afternoon at Renaissance Family Fitness in Houma.



They practiced at 5:50 a.m. and have long been done for the day.



But tennis is still being played by Vandebilt Catholic amidst the afternoon’s bright and beautiful skies.

It’s all part of the process for the program, which has won four-consecutive state championships.



Today the program’s “blue team” is getting some work – tomorrow’s potential stars are polishing their craft.



With the Terriers cruising toward what might be their fifth-straight state championship, it is Vandebilt’s varsity gold team that usually gets most of the headlines and attention.

But those in the program also tout the success of Vandebilt’s varsity blue team, which is made up of “second-tier” players that in many cases are the future of the team.



Don’t interpret the word “second-tier” literally. Like their gold teammates, the Terriers’ blue squad is undefeated and has already beaten a handful of varsity teams from around the Tri-parishes.



“This really helps you for Regionals and State,” Vandebilt varsity blue player Mitchell Thomas said. “It kind of gives you more of a team feeling. And, of course, by having an extra team, the next year, it prepares kids to be ready for the upper team or the varsity team – it’s just good all-around. I love it.”

“We’ve been so very fortunate in the past five or six years especially where we’d have a rich talent pool to where with our blue team, we actually call it Varsity Blue,” Vandebilt coach Kevin Ramirez said. “And the people that they play are other varsity teams. I think that in tennis or in life, everyone’s got to have a goal and this gives less experienced or less talented players the opportunity to compete for the ultimate goal, which is to make the Varsity Gold. Kids just tend to work harder when they get to that point where they are close to that gold team.”



The reason for Vandebilt’s program structure is multi-tiered.



But it all starts with a simple philosophy – not cutting players from the team.

Anyone who wants to play for the Terriers is free to do so. Where they rank in talent and skill will determine whether they become a member of the varsity gold, varsity blue or junior varsity squad.



Ramirez said he structured the program that way first to allow anyone within the program to experience the feeling of representing their school.



“Everyone wants to have that opportunity to represent their school,” the coach said. “Every kid wants that chance to be a part of something special.”

He also said he doesn’t cut players to risk missing out on players who potentially reach a growth spurt or greatly increase their skill level after being let go.



“Way back when, when we had just one team, we did cut kids,” Ramirez said. “And what we discovered was that more times than not, we’d never see those kids again. You just never know how much a kid’s going to grow in a year or so or how much they’ll grow in their coordination.



“I just feel very strongly that the only true way to build a program is by taking every, single person that’s interested and trying to help develop them, not just so that they can be the best tennis player that they can be, but also helping them to be good kids, both on and off the court.”

Having that philosophy is simple. But one needs an abundance of players to pull it off without a hitch.

Vandebilt has plenty of those. They easily have the greatest numbers of anyone in the Tri-parish area.

It’s not even close, actually.

The Terriers have close to 60 players in their program – a number that is actually slightly down from what it has been in recent years.

“We started this and we had 40 kids and it’s just grown,” Ramirez said. “Last year, we were right at 70 and this year, we have 60 kids.”

As to why tennis is so much more popular at Vandebilt than in other places? No one on the team seems to have a clear answer.

“Vandebilt has this big, rich history of tennis and people just start playing when they are really, really young,” senior blue team member Mackenzie Mistich said. “So once we get to Vandebilt, we just have so many people who want to play tennis. We just have to split it up into three teams.”

“I really don’t know why to be honest,” freshman blue team member Rachel Haydel said. “We do always have more players than the other team, though. That’s a huge help. Maybe it’s because of Coach Kevin? I don’t know. Everyone knows him. He’s a good coach, too.”

Ramirez takes his best crack at it and says he believes it’s a mix between the school’s rich winning tradition and also the lively atmosphere he maintains with his team.

“I think it’s just about getting to know the kids and having fun with them,” Ramirez said. “Through the years, once you become a little successful, then it becomes cool to play and it’s easy to get kids to do things.

“I think if you ask kids, they would say we have a very good balance. We work very, very hard. But we also have a lot of fun. I think if you can do those two things, you can get to the point we are now. … Kids want to be a part of something big.”

The mix of fun, hard work and dedication – that’s where the winning is started.

The ultimate goal is gold, but blue can play a little tennis, too.

The entire Vandebilt program appears more rock solid than ever.

“We have good players on this team,” Ramirez said. “They play against varsity competition and do more than hold their own. It’s a testament to them.”

“We see the gold team and it inspires us, because we want to be that someday,” Thomas said. “We learn a lot from them and we just can visualize ourselves someday being in those shoes.”

Vandebilt Catholic eighth grader Mitchell Thomas stares down the ball during a recent match. 

CASEY GISCLAIR | TRI-PARISH TIMES