Organizer of the Month

August 2019

August 13, 2019

Each month, USTA Eastern selects a passionate advocate who has made exceptional contributions within the community through tennis. This month we honor a high school teacher and coach who, frustrated with the lack of student interest in the game, took the initiative to create her own summer youth tennis program.


Growing the Game in Oneonta


Oneonta City Schools Spanish teacher and tennis coach Phyllis Orlowski knows a thing or three about starting over and rebuilding. At various points in her life she moved everywhere from New York City to Brazil to Italy to Turkey; she didn’t even begin her second career as a teacher until she was 42 years old. So it makes sense, then, that she’d possess the ingenuity and resolve to reestablish a once-blossoming tennis operation in the Oneonta community that had gone dormant over the last few years.



"I first started coaching in 2006, and there were all these kids I just inherited," she explains. "There was a group that always went out for the team, and they knew how to play because there had been a great free summer program in the park in Oneonta. Kids used to come to the park, play tennis and then swim all day long."


After the 2008 season, Orlowski stepped away from coaching for several years. When she returned to the position in 2017, she found her experience recruiting students to be markedly harder, and she struggled to field a complete team. Soon she learned why: In the interval between her stints as coach, local government had shut down the Oneonta tennis program as a cost-cutting measure. "It really made an impact on kids knowing how to play," Orlowski says. She realized that if she wanted to continue coaching and develop strong teams over multiple years, she'd need to take action herself and create her own Oneonta tennis pipeline.


"I met with people and asked who could do a summer program [in the park again], and they said 'Well, you have to do it,'" she recalls now with a laugh. "I was like, 'What? I work in the summer! I have to make money!'"


But Orlowski quickly put a plan together. She reached out to USTA Eastern Tennis Service Representative Jenny Irwin, who helped her procure a grant. She then signed up for Net Generation, the USTA's flagship program for growing and developing youth tennis nationwide. Joining Net Generation gave Orlowski access to a wealth of materials, including tennis racquets, balls and USTA-cultivated lesson plans. She targeted a Summer 2019 launch, and in preparation attended a Net Generation workshop to really familiarize herself with the curriculum. Simultaneously, she secured local sponsors to provide shirts for her participants and promoted the program largely on her own through the school district. Mary-Margaret Sohns, a representative on USTA Eastern's Northern Region Council, collaborated with Orlowski and helped provide two tennis pros, Jorge and Sebastian Falla, to assist in creating a more rigorous course for older students.


The results exceeded the Spanish teacher’s expectations: A whopping 80 kids—ranging from kindergarteners to high schoolers—signed up for the three-week program. (Orlowski divided the participants into three age groups and taught them separately.)


For the younger set, "I really followed the Net Generation curriculum to a tee," she says. "[The curriculum] has really fun games and ideas—the kids loved it. I would modify the games a little bit and make them a little crazier by throwing in water balloons, hula hoops and jump ropes."


Orlowski didn’t just receive an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the kids. Parents, too, were thrilled. "They would come up to me and say 'Thank you, you're helping us so much!' because the kids would wake up and actually want to go to tennis. They didn't have to, you know, drag them out to the courts. And I knew it was going well, because it was always really busy."


Plans are underway to expand the operation next summer, and Orlowski also hopes to utilize some local indoor facilities for fall and winter play.


"We're really trying to grow what we've done,” she says. “We know tennis is such an outstanding sport. It really helps kids in every aspect of their lives. We want to get kids into the park and playing. And starting young. Starting young is so key."


Related Articles