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National Junior Tennis League is a steppingstone

Laura Flanagan of Citrus County wears quite a few hats. Last weekend, however, the tennis-teaching professional limited her roles to two: coordinator of the county's National Junior Tennis League and parent.

Flanagan's team of eight players joined more than 300 others at the NJTL Rally in Tampa for a weekend of singles and doubles team competition. In all, 40 teams participated, the largest ever.

"This is our third year to come to the Rally," said Flanagan. "The weekend is a lot of work, but when you see the enjoyment on their faces it's worth it. And the Rally is a wonderful way of exposing them to tennis, meeting other kids and encouraging them to keep playing tennis year-round."

NJTL is an introductory, recreational program for children ages 8-18 sponsored by the U.S. Tennis Association. A team environment is encouraged as the children are taught the basics.

Flanagan started her NJTL program three years ago and has attended the Rally with a selected group of players each year. Also a physical education teacher at Crystal River Primary School, she chooses the eight participants on sportsmanship, attendance and other coaches' recommendations. There are 30 players in the Citrus County league.

Among players attending for the first time was Chris LeVoie, who also played doubles with Zubair Ansari.

"I think this Rally is real good," said LeVoie. "I've met some new friends, played a lot of tennis, and am going to keep playing."

Ditto for Carl Flanagan, Laura's 9-year-old son who attended for his second time. He played singles and teamed with Joey Santti for doubles.

"I also like to play football," said Carl, "but my mom teaches me tennis and this was fun. It wasn't as crowded this year and we played a lot."

Other team members were Heather Halstead, who played doubles with Amber Giddens, and Ashley Bonano, who played doubles with Caroline Rodriquez.

Saturday at the Rally, all players played three rounds of singles. On Sunday, four rounds of doubles were played. For the first time, no team scoring was kept to determine an overall winner. Instead, a sportsmanship trophy was awarded to a team judged by its peers as displaying the best attitude and court etiquette. A team from Bluewater Bay was named the winner.

Flanagan also directs a USTA Junior Team Tennis program in Citrus County that is a followup for NJTL graduates.

"We started Junior Team Tennis because as the players got better, we had no place to put them," explained Flanagan. "NJTL got them on the court; adding Junior Team Tennis keeps the better ones on the court."

Flanagan also coaches the boys team at Lecanto High School, and Junior Team Tennis provides an opportunity for nearly year-round playing, she said.

"We have heard from many of the parents and coaches positive reactions to this year's Rally," said Andy McFarland, coordinator of junior recreation for Florida. "Last year with 37 teams attending all at one time was too hectic. This year, we divided the first day into two sessions of 20 teams and the children were able to play more. And there was less confusion."

There are 44 NJTL rallies in the nation and Florida's is the largest.

JUNIOR INTERSECTIONALS: Florida's intersectional girls team includes the state's No. 1, 2, and 3 players in the girls 18 division along with No. 5, 6 and 8 in this week's USTA Girls Intersectional Team Championships in San Rafael, Calif. Top-ranked Jessica Lehnoff of Cooper City, Janet Walker of Seffner and Marcy Hora of Delray Beach are the top three players, followed by Erica Biro of Boca Raton, Cheryl Mallaiah of Longwood, and Christa Grey of Seminole.

Grey and Walker were finalists in this month's USTA Clay Court Championships, and Walker finished fourth in singles. Last month, Grey and Walker teamed to win the girls 18 state doubles title. It was Grey's eighth state doubles championship.

Danny McCain of Largo, currently seeded 10th in the state, is among six boys selected for the intersectional team competition this week in Columbia, S.C. Other players include Lee Trey Adcock of Winter Park, Michael Lang of Sarasota, Andres Pedroso of Coral Gables, Mark Overdevest of Bradenton, and Emmett Braxton of Miami.

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