University of Alabama Sets Wheelchair Standard

Erin Maher | May 09, 2018

Boasting six players, a head coach, two volunteer coaches, an intern and a strength and conditioning coach, the University of Alabama's wheelchair tennis team rolled onto the USTA's National Campus last month more like a crimson tsunami than a Crimson Tide. 


At the end of April, Alabama picked up its fourth national championship at the 2018 USTA Wheelchair Tennis Collegiate National Championships in Orlando, Fla.  


Alabama has both the largest wheelchair tennis team in the country and the most successful, with head coach Evan Enquist at the helm.


Enquist, a Rochester, Minn., native, grew up playing tennis, placing as high as third in the Minnesota State Championships in high school. His talent took him to Drake University, where he played NCAA Division I tennis for the Bulldogs, graduating with a degree in health sciences. 


Enquist went on to get his master's degree in exercise and sport science from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse and was never too far from the court. He completed his master's while serving double duty as both the coach and strength and conditioning specialist for the Division III men's and women's tennis teams at Wisconsin-LaCrosse for two years before deciding to temporarily retire his tennis togs. 


"I said, 'I'm going to put tennis aside for a little while and finish my schooling,'" said Enquist, who began studying for his doctorate in exercise physiology at the University of Alabama in 2014. 


It didn't take long for Enquist to find his way back onto the court. His coursework brought him to the kinesiology building on campus, where he met and befriended many wheelchair athletes. 


Within his first semester at Alabama, Enquist was recruited by friends to volunteer with the school's burgeoning wheelchair tennis program. When asked about his familiarity with wheelchair tennis before getting started in the program, Enquist said with a laugh, "Yeah, no experience. Zero. Never had honestly really seen the sport; maybe in passing."


Enquist had no trouble sharing insight into the swing perspective, strokes and serving, as they are identical to regular able-bodied tennis. But mobility in wheelchair tennis was unfamiliar terrain to him. To gain a greater understanding of the sport he was now coaching, he hopped into a wheelchair and has since continued to hold practice twice a week from a wheelchair.


After a year of volunteering, Enquist was named Alabama's head coach in the fall of 2015. 


Since the program's inception in 2010, Enquist has more than tripled the team's size, expanding the roster from one team member to its now six players and amassing three national titles (2015, 2017, 2018) under his tutelage. 


Enquist has applied his experience in collegiate tennis to his current coaching program.


"Essentially, the model we're trying to go after is giving our athletes the same exact experience as a stand-up Division I athlete," he said. "The experience that I got as an athlete is what I am trying to provide for these students, as well. I think every year we get closer and closer to having those benefits."


The program has become tantamount to standard able-bodied NCAA Division I programs, from the uniforms to the practice sessions and beginning even before an athlete joins the team.


Said Susan Hopps-Tatum, mother of Alabama team member Lauren Haneke-Hopps: "Lauren was recruited by Alabama, and we were just blown away by the level of dedication and commitment by Evan Enquist, the coach, and Brent Hardin, the Director of Adapted Athletics. Just that level of commitment and dedication to seeing student-athletes grow personally, grow academically and grow in their sport was enticing, exciting and what you want for your student and child."


Enquist's recruitment has bolstered the team's roster, securing players such as 2016 Paralympian and Team USA World Team Cup member Shelby Baron all the way from Hawaii. 


"He just cares a lot," said 23-year-old Baron. "He has a lot of experience under his belt. He's played, coached, and he's just got a lot of enthusiasm for the game, for our team. He's also a student, so he has that bond with us."


Most recently, three-time Junior World Team Cup team member Conner Stroud committed to the Tide and is expected to join the team in fall 2018. 


Enquist's efforts, mixed with the University of Alabama's robust adapted athletics programs, have been an ace on the court. Two of the athletes playing on the Alabama wheelchair team have scholarships, thanks to the support of Enquist and the university to help the student-athletes secure grants, which are highly uncommon in the world of wheelchair tennis. 


The players also have first-class training amenities, since the January 2018 opening of the Stran-Hardin Arena, a $10-million, multi-purpose facility for UA's Adapted Athletics program. The adapted athletics arena, situated right across from the tennis courts, is home to locker rooms, a weight room, study spaces and more – all exclusively designed with adapted athletes in mind.


UA's wheelchair team members are not only champions but incredible ambassadors for the sport. Once a week, the team holds the Crimson Community Wheelchair Tennis Clinic, offered to university and community members interested in learning about wheelchair tennis, with all equipment provided free of charge.


The team also hosts multiple fundraising efforts, including the Spring Swing, a fundraiser that pairs non-disabled players with wheelchair players for a day of match play and fun. Funds raised from their efforts have gone towards the team's travel to ITF and USTA tournaments across the country. The team has gone as far as Mexico in 2017. 


Enquist also has managed to take his turn competing for Alabama, playing for Alabama's Club tennis team from 2014-17. He helped push the team to Nationals three years in a row and grew the team from only 20 players in 2014 to more than 75 players in 2017, making it one of the largest club sports on the UA campus. In 2017, Enquist and the Alabama club team won the 2017 USTA Tennis on Campus National Club of the Year award for its community involvement and success both on and off the court. 


Enquist is finishing up his fifth year at UA and will soon graduate with a Ph.D., but he has no plans to leave the program he has worked so hard to build. 


Enquist currently serves as a member of the USTA National Wheelchair Tennis Committee and was appointed the chair of the Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Sub-Committee. He also holds regional positions on the USTA Southern Wheelchair Tennis Committee and USTA Alabama Diversity Committee.


"Evan, for us, is setting a standard at this level. Having a passionate coach like him, at a major university that has such a strong adaptive program, is massive," says Team USA Wheelchair Coach Jason Harnett. "He sees the value in what he's doing at the collegiate level. People like him are critical. Think about how many Evan Enquists there are – just one."


Pictured Above: The University of Alabama wheelchair tennis team celebrates after winning its fourth national title last month at the 2018 USTA National Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Championships, held at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. (Photo credit: Erin Maher)




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