LAKEWOOD RANCH — With his Wilson tennis racket hovering slightly above his head, 7-year-old Jared Stancil waits silently.
A smile spreads across his face as he looks at his partner, Riverview High junior Emma Traynor, standing just across the net.
Traynor tosses the ball gently back to Jared, and with a quick flick of his wrist, Jared sends the ball back over the net — much to the delight of Traynor and 9-year-old Hannah Paul, who has been practicing moving her feet alongside Jared with every volley.
Down the court, Sarah Davis, 17, and Justin Bear, 16, known to their teammates as “Thunder” and “Lightning,” take turns practicing their forehand and backhand techniques with coach Joan Bellissimo.
Musical vibrations from limbo and hula-hoop contests happening up on court one reverberate through the morning air.
It’s the final day of the Manasota BUDS (Bringing Up Down Syndrome) Tennis program’s winter session, and the Lakewood Ranch High tennis courts are bursting with youthful energy.
And for the five participants in attendance, the eventfulness of the day has only just begun.
“Tennis is my life,” Davis says. “I love being here with my friends and being a part of this tennis program. (Being out on the court) makes me feel happy and more athletic.”
“I like seeing my friends,” says Bear, who attends Pinnacle Academy. “It makes me happy.”
Davis began taking tennis lessons with her triplet sister Allison seven years ago under Bellissimo.
But, unlike her sister’s lessons, Sarah Davis’ lessons were geared more toward moving around than the sport of tennis itself.
With each lesson, Sarah Davis, who has Down syndrome, worked on balance, cognitive skills and throwing and catching, among other skills, in addition to learning how to play tennis.
“With Sarah, it’s about growth and progression,” Bellissimo says. “It’s more about investing in Sarah and not so much about tennis.”
Allison Davis, who plays tennis for Riverview High, would occasionally come and assist Bellissimo during her sister’s lessons.
But last May, when Allison Davis brought Traynor to watch one of Sarah Davis’ lessons, she saw the pure joy on her sister’s face when she hit the ball over the net.
“Everything was an achievement,” Allison Davis says. “The enthusiasm was so contagious, and I just thought, ‘What if we can provide that to other kids with Down syndrome?’”
Inspired by her sister, Allison Davis and Traynor decided they wanted to provide that same tennis experience to all students with Down syndrome in the community, at no cost.
The teammates created BUDS Tennis, under the Manasota BUDS organization, last May. After a few trial sessions, BUDS Tennis held an eight-week fall session, which ran from October to December, and an eight-week winter session, which began in early January and ended March 1.
“It’s been really eye-opening for me,” Allison Davis says. “Wow. These kids get so excited about something that I normally would be angry about how I did. Now I just try to bring that (attitude) with me every day to practice.”
Love of the game
During each hour-long session, participants have the opportunity to showcase their tennis skills in front of their family and friends while building friendships and strengthening other skills, such as hand-eye coordination and balance.
Each session begins with a warm-up lap and partner sessions. The players then rotate between three stations. Bellissimo works on forehand and backhand swings on one court. Traynor takes the middle court, where she works on volleys. And the final court, or the fun court, is reserved for games such as limbo, hula-hoop and the balance beam, where the white lines of the court act as the balance beam and the blue serves as the lava.
“We try to get a smile out of it,” Allison Davis says. “We like to see their achievements, smiles and celebration. They just get excited hitting the ball over the net. It’s really refreshing to see their love for the sport of tennis.
“I just want them to learn to love what you do,” Allison Davis says. “No matter what the circumstances, you can achieve anything. It’s about the little things. We get so caught up in the big picture that we forget the little achievements and the little things that make us happy and have a good time.”
At the conclusion of each session, the players line up for a victory lap before receiving medals and certificates for the day.
“I’m so proud of my sister for doing this for me,” says Sarah Davis, who attends Pinnacle Academy. “She’s always looking out for me. I love my sister. She’s the most wonderful and sweetest girl I’ve ever met.”
Following the session, Allison Davis sends out an email to all the BUDS Tennis families recapping the day’s events. And the final week proved to be no different — Allison Davis praised each player for his or her efforts, including those of 12-year-old Ella Quaid, who broke the volley record with 50 volleys in a row, and Hannah, who outlasted everyone in the hula-hoop competition.
“They do such a good job keeping the kids excited about tennis,” parent Jeff Bear says. “It’s not all about tennis because they are all at different levels. They want the kids to experience the excitement of the little accomplishments. And if they can enjoy this part of tennis then maybe they’ll want to learn tennis more and go out and hit with their parents.”
The BUDS Tennis program will resume again in the fall, and Allison Davis hopes to expand the program throughout the Bradenton/Sarasota area. Until then, Allison Davis, Traynor and Bellissimo will offer private, semiprivate and group lessons to BUDS families.
“It’s just so different,” Allison Davis says. “We want to try to bring it into the tennis community. The tennis community is huge. The thing people are missing is the love for the sport. They play to win … It’s refreshing to see the love flourish because you don’t see that in every day tennis.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].