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Guest Column

Karen Students Join Huron Team

Daniel Borgertpoepping  |  December 28, 2018
Huron tennis team

Guest Column by Leah Branaugh


They've opened doors for others through tennis

Guest Column by Leah Branaugh

In Huron, SD, a population of Karen refugees from Southeast Asia has changed the economic and cultural landscape in recent years. According to PBS, there are around 600 Karen people in Huron, a population critical to keeping the turkey industry alive in the area. The children are becoming increasingly involved with high school sports as well. The following is a guest column from Huron, SD, teacher and coach, Leah Branaugh: 


In 2017, we had about eight Karen boys join our middle school boys’ tennis team as 8th graders. They showed up and had never played tennis before but wanted to try something new. It was a great experience for them and a great way for me to see them in a different context. I had taught most of them for one or two years in the English as a Second Language math department.



They came with racquets purchased from Wal-Mart or the local Salvation Army Thrift Shop. One boy even had a racquetball racquet since he didn’t know what to buy. Most didn’t have proper shoes; some of which were just little slip-on shoes from Wal-Mart. I was so happy to have them there as they brought a new dynamic to our middle school/junior varsity team. The first battle we had was trying to explain scoring and rules as there is a language barrier. Some boys speak English pretty well and others not much at all; sometimes only around people with whom they’re comfortable.


Hard Work


That spring, the boys got to play in a couple of junior varsity middle school matches. To prepare, they would stay at the tennis courts for an hour or two after practice finished to improve their skills. They were a very dedicated bunch. They all won some matches and we even had one boy who took second place at our Middle School ESD (Eastern South Dakota Conference) Tennis Tournament. We had to work hard on pronouncing each score and helping them understand they need to speak loudly so the opponent can hear the score. Some are very self-conscious about how their English sounds and are always worried people will not be able to understand their accent. They really have done a great job improving in that area!


This was the jump start for Karen tennis players in Huron. They worked so hard in the summer and fall of 2017 and played nearly every chance they could, even if the weather was cold. Sometimes I would see them playing when it was 25 degrees and other times when it was 105 degrees. They always have a smile on their face; they really seem to love the game and they improved rapidly. I invited them to join our summer tennis league in town and they never missed a week. The adults in town enjoyed having new competition as well! One of the league members was able to get some money donated and got four boys nicer racquets to use which was so nice. In turn, they always play with him and really enjoy his company. He also has helped pay for them to play at our local Nordby Center in the winter to get more playing time and prepare for the spring season.


We also benefited from items donated by USTA Northern. I almost cried when I opened the box, it was such a great feeling to have someone lend a hand to help our program improve and it will greatly help us!


Participation Continues to Grow


This past spring we had about 30 boys out for our tennis team and of that number, about 16-18 are Karen. Our #6 player won 3rd place at our Varsity ESD Conference Tournament in Singles and he also won the consolation championship in Flight 6 at the state tournament. Not bad for a group of guys who had only been playing tennis for a year! The state tournament was in Rapid City, SD, and even though it is only about 5 hours from Huron, the boys had never been there before. I drove them over and we talked about the Badlands and the Black Hills; they had their phones out and were snapping pictures and videos so they could show their families when we got back to Huron. They also had only stayed in a hotel the first night they came to the United States, so they were unsure about how things worked, such as the key for the door and a wake-up call. I could tell they appreciated all the different parts of the experience.


This summer, they played a lot of tennis, participated in our summer tennis league again, and played a lot in their spare time — nearly every day for several hours! They also played in three adult tournaments. Two were fundraiser tournaments in Mitchell and Huron and the other was the Hub City Open in Aberdeen, SD. I played 8.0 mixed doubles with one of the boys, Eh Dah. We won the tournament and it was such a great experience to play with him and help teach some strategy each match based on our opponents. The Aberdeen newspaper interviewed him after and it was wonderful to see him really feel important, even though he was shy and gave me all the credit, which he definitely didn’t need to do. It will be hard for these guys to get to play junior tournaments due to the expense and some of their parents being unable to drive, so we are happy to help get them to adult tournaments when we can.


It’s been great that they tried tennis because it has opened doors for them and other younger Karen students in our community. We now have had Karen girls on the girls’ tennis team the past two fall seasons. In the fall of 2017, there was just one Karen girl, who happened to be #6 on varsity; this fall, the number grew to about 15 Karen girls on the team out of a total of 29 girls, two of whom played varsity. It’s been a very positive experience for the girls as female sports in the Karen culture is a relatively new thing.


I’ve really learned to appreciate tennis more since they joined our tennis team and our tennis community in Huron. They don’t take tennis for granted and love any chance they have to play, whether that’s with each other or with the adults in town. The boys are fairly low-income so they don’t have nice shoes or $200 dollar racquets and can’t afford camps or private lessons, but they do know the value of hard work and put their best foot forward every time they play. They are turning the heads of other boys’ coaches in the state. Our Huron Boys’ Tennis Team won the Sportsmanship Award at the state tournament this past May and it was such a great honor not only for Huron but for the boys to see how much people are noticing them on and off the court. 


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