This is Part Two of our exploration of the Anderson College and Augusta College table tennis rivalry. In Part One, we took a look at the formation of both programs, and you can read that here.
Part Two …
Derek May is a chopper.
You’ll need to understand table tennis — competitive table tennis — to know what that means.
It’s a style of play that typically confounds most folks on the table. It’s built on patience, relying on defensive measures to bait aggressive players into making mistakes.
Today, if you watch table tennis in the Olympics — or, let’s say, on ESPN’s annual “Ocho Day” coverage — you’re likely used to seeing the players slowly and steadily backing up as they deliver stronger and stronger strikes. It’s an intensity that exceeds your likely experiences of the game, cobbled together at your college’s student center or during a rain delay at your neighborhood swimming pool.
It’s fast-paced. It’s forceful. It’s overpowering.
A chopper, however, counters this cleverly. They might retreat, but also may creep up closer to the table. Shots may feature spin … or they may not. Strokes may appear firm, but they might land soft.
“Their biggest weapon is deception,” said Greg Riley, a member of Anderson College’s table tennis teams in the early 1990s. “So they’re just chopping the ball. They’re not attacking, not hitting or trying to smash it past you. They’re just chopping, but a lot of the time they’re using different variations. The same stroke with different spin on it.”
Choppers like Derek, however, didn’t faze Riley.
“We’d always say we’d get the chop killer for Derek,” said Riley with a laugh.
“Greg was always really hard for me,” Derek sighed. “For whatever reason, Greg, I think I beat him some, but he had my number.”
Derek May was an anchor of the Augusta College team, helping guide the Jaguars to several national team championships. Greg Riley was a standout for Anderson, helping the Trojans win three individual national titles.
“These were friends of ours, but not when we were on the table,” said Derek.
Like their respective programs, they had their fair share of battles on the table. And while the two schools may have been fierce competitors, they also were bound by their collaboration — their commitment — to changing the landscape of collegiate table tennis.
It often felt like an uphill battle, but it was one that proved to fundamentally reshape the trajectory of the sport in the long run.
The building blocks of a program
With the full support of their college leadership behind them, both programs set out to change the paradigm for the sport.
Anderson College most closely resembled what you might expect a traditional approach to crafting and managing a collegiate program would look like. It established a set amount of scholarships it could allocate to its table tennis student-athletes, and then offered in-state tuition rates to other interested players.
Additionally, to attract the best coaching prospects to nurture and train the growing number of players, Anderson College offered various educational avenues for coaches. This was an increasingly effective recruitment tool as many international table tennis players had been playing or coaching professionally overseas since they were young.
“Most of the time in those days, you either had to choose to be a professional ping pong player or you had to quit and go to college,” said Steve Hopkins, son of Anderson College president Mark Hopkins. “You didn’t have any other option, and in fact, most colleges didn’t have any sort of ‘real’ ping pong so if you went to college you just stopped being a professional player because you stopped playing for three or so hours a day and everyone else passed you by.”
Along the same lines of how Mark Hopkins used scholarships and in-state tuition to grow enrollment at Anderson College, the ability to blend an education with the opportunity to keep training positioned the school as a unique haven for both young players and prospective coaches.
That approach is how the Trojans landed Christian Lillieroos as their second head coach.
Lillieroos was already well-regarded in the sport as one of its top young coaches. He had trained extensively in Sweden. The country’s national team had moved into the second spot in the world rankings, while Sweden itself boasted a host of professional leagues.
Once he became head coach, he instituted a training regimen to better align the program with the structure found in other college athletics programs.
“He took a very serious attitude with team members jogging in the morning and doing weights in the afternoon,” said Steve Hopkins. “He had them following specific training schedules and sessions, and not just playing little kid ping pong.”
Anderson College used this incentive package to not only bring in the best players, but also position itself as the premier training ground for table tennis coaches in the country. By bundling a scholarship with some additional aid, the school was able to pair aspiring coaches with some of the best young talent from around the world.
“Mark Hopkins was the pioneer of college table tennis in the South,” said Pete May, the father of Derek May and the founder of Augusta College’s table tennis program.
Forced to get creative
Ninety miles away, Augusta College wasn’t able to offer as robust of a scholarship package and instead relied on a clever mixture of benefits and the ingenuity of Pete May to provide ancillary incentives for prospective players.
“This was the essence of winging it,” Derek May joked.
The college offered in-state tuition rates for all table tennis players, while the program promised guaranteed housing for its players. Of course, the housing wasn’t traditional on-campus housing. It was two adjacent properties on Crawford Avenue that Pete May owned or rented, reserving them exclusively for members of the Jaguars’ table tennis team.
“We had to be a little more crafty,” said Derek. “My dad had a rental property, and we loaded as many people in there as we could. Then we rented the house next door. We raised money. We did exhibitions out on the Riverwalk. We had to be nimble.”
Pete’s extensive connections in Augusta helped him land a training facility within walking distance of both houses as well: an older recreational center that offered a secure, viable location for the team to practice.
And, unlike student-athletes under the NCAA’s governance, Augusta College’s players were eligible for — and in many cases had to get — part-time jobs off-campus to help make ends meet.
Consider Brian Pace, who arrived at Augusta in 1991 as a member of one of the most highly touted classes in the country. Along with Oscar Melvin and Anthony Cooper, they filled out a class that would solidify the program’s position as the nation’s best.
However, unlike other collegiate sports, he didn’t have a full-fledged athletic scholarship to draw from despite being the No. 2 high school player in the country. That’s because, as a club sport, the amount of benefits available to him were limited to those that Pete May had generously worked to piece together.
“If I was the No. 2 football or basketball or tennis player, it would have just been a free ride,” said Pace. “But, for me, I got to Augusta and I worked at Zaxby’s, right on Walton Way. We had to work regular jobs, study and train every day, which was one of the first times I had to learn about time management and emotional management.”
Who’s in charge?
We need to talk a little bit about the structure — or lack thereof — of college table tennis in the 1980s and 1990s. Because in the course of conducting 10 interviews and reviewing countless articles for this series, it’s apparent that what some consider to be a national championship may not necessarily be one to others.
Think of it as the college football landscape prior to the formation of BCS. Don’t even worry about the playoffs. College table tennis has long lived in a world that parallelled the days of Notre Dame and Alabama claiming a few extra football titles because of the Litkenhous or Williamson polls back in the day.
And it’s not the fault of the players and programs, advocates and associations. The sport, by its very nature, is an individual-first, team-second endeavor. Compounding the challenges in those early days was the myriad number of organizations that coordinated tournaments and attempted to provide some measure of oversight, each of them playing a vital, necessary role.
“It was messy, and that’s probably the best way to say it,” said Willy Leparulo, the president of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. “I don’t fault them, and in my opinion, they laid the groundwork for what we can do today.”
As Leparulo noted, there were lots of championships for teams and players to win.
USA Table Tennis (USATT) has long had the biggest reach, with a membership of players of varying skills regardless of their affiliation. USATT was the primary governing body for many of the individual tournaments held across the country, as well as a host of team events, including the national team championships in Detroit … though those events could be made up of non-collegiate teams as well. (“They didn’t even have to have matching uniforms,” Leparulo pointed out.)
There was the Association of College Union International (ACUI) which oversaw the majority of student union activities across college campuses. Think foosball, billiards and bowling. ACUI largely coordinated regional events and oversaw some of the college team elements.
The Eastern Intercollegiate Table Tennis League (EITTL) provided a structure for most of the collegiate teams to compete in, hosting what it referred to as a national championship tournament at Princeton each year. It had traditionally been dominated by the Ivy League schools that had ruled the sports in its early days.
The EITTL disbanded by the late 1990s, and was ultimately replaced by League of Northeastern Intercollegiate Table Tennis. Founded by Thomas Hu and Nelson Chin, it initially only featured five Ivy League schools, but eventually expanded beyond the reach of its geographical moniker to become the NCTTA of today.
Anderson College and Augusta College made their mark in all of these tournaments, including the two programs winning five straight EITTL team championships from 1988-1992.
Two schools, one program
While the rest of the programs chugged along adhering to the old model — talented players arrive by chance in pursuit of an education, meaning we might be good this year — Anderson College and Augusta College devoted the resources and energy to build what they believed would be sustainable programs.
And, in the short term, it paid off.
“At the time, we were really the only two professionally run and managed programs in college table tennis,” said Ty Hoff, a coach on those early Augusta College teams. “That’s why we were so good, and why we were able to attract good players both nationally and internationally.”
It also helped that the two programs had a symbiotic relationship. They trained together, competed against each other, and — as evident by the sing-along bus ride to USATT’s Team Championships in Detroit mentioned in the first part of this series — shared the costs and burdens of putting this grand plan into action.
After the departure of Lillieroos from Anderson College, Richard McAfee would take over the reins for the Trojans. McAfee was a close friend of Pete May, and the two collaborated frequently on how to further develop the two programs and grow the sport.
They set up what they deemed a “triangle tournament” where they rotated playing each other on a monthly basis in Anderson, Augusta and Atlanta, inviting other high-level players and non-collegiate club teams to participate in exhibitions. Both programs invited the best national and international players to come spend a week or two training with their teams, and these premier players often would travel back and forth between the two campuses.
They traveled to tournaments together, hosted joint fundraisers and even, according to Pete May, had a set of unwritten rules about who could recruit where (Anderson College focused heavily on the Caribbean, while Augusta College enjoyed a steady stream of homegrown U.S. talent).
At one point, seven of the top 10 table tennis players in the U.S. were living in either Anderson or Augusta.
“In some ways, we really were like one program,” said Pete.
Augusta College positioned itself as the dominant team in the sport’s ranks, claiming five national titles from various organizations. They were the first team — club or NCAA-sanctioned — to win a national championship for Augusta College.
The individual players from Anderson College often prevailed in the individual match-ups, with Michael Hyatt, Nigel Christopher and Greg Riley winning three straight individual national titles.
“What’s that saying, steel sharpens steel?” Christopher said. “It was like that. At the end of the day, after the match, we’d be cordial and friendly, but when you’re on the table a whole different animal came out.”
The two schools simply overpowered any competition in their way.
“A few years ago, everyone knew Cleveland was going to go to the NBA Finals and play Golden State,” Pace said. “It was just like that, but imagine them being 90 miles apart and playing each other every single month. That was us and Anderson.”
Even the simplest touches went a long way in setting the tone. The Jaguars, for instance, had blue track suits with the school’s logo emblazoned across the front. Anderson College, as well, had uniforms. Matching apparel, in those days, was an afterthought in the unregulated landscape of college table tennis, meaning whenever the two teams arrived at an event it would send a ripple of emotion — and unease — among the other competitors.
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“What was surprising to some people is that these talented players were going to small schools,” said McAfee. “But what they didn’t realize was that if somebody came to Anderson, and they were on the team, they had a high level of training.
“I would say the training programs at Anderson and Augusta were probably the two best in the United States as far as number of hours invested, the organization, the planning and the professional coaching. I don’t know of any other programs in the country at the time that were operating on the level of what our guys did.”
Yet, in the blink of an eye, it would all come to an end.
An abrupt ending
The two premier programs in the sports, the standard bearers who helped define the vision for how to build a successful collegiate table tennis program, lived and died through parental patronage.
While Anderson College’s investments in table tennis were part of a strategy to attract new students, it also can’t be ignored that they also were largely the result of Mark Hopkins supporting the interests and passions of his son, Steve. The same is true at Augusta College, where Pete May pulled together the community resources to facilitate the launch of the program primarily because his son was one of the sport’s top players.
After Derek May had graduated and moved on to a career away from table tennis, Pete opted to step back from the day-to-day operations of the Jaguars’ table tennis program.
In addition to what he deems the geographical challenges of organizing a collegiate table tennis organization in the U.S., Pete May said table tennis largely is a sport that requires a dedicated group of patrons. In the absence of those patrons — the advocates, ambassadors and promoters who can seemingly will opportunities into being — it’s almost too burdensome to keep the programs afloat.
Before leaving, he pitched an idea to the college’s administration to set up an academic program that would focus on the business of the sport, training coaches, administrators and players for what comes next.
Augusta College passed on the opportunity, and, in 1995, the program folded.
“You have to have patrons, and you can’t spend more than the patrons want,” Pete said. “So I took the feeling that Augusta didn’t really want table tennis. I was the one who wanted table tennis. I couldn’t just want it to happen if I had other things to do.”
In Anderson, Mark Hopkins had just finished guiding the college through an intensive process to transition to a four-year institution after more than 70 years of being a two-year junior college. At that point, he opted to move on, while McAfee accepted the position to manage the table tennis competition for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The Trojans’ program was shuttered in 1997.
In the end, neither lasted more than 10 years.
“The biggest problem, I guess, was we never could get the sport of table tennis, and the success of our programs, into a larger, national context,” McAfee said. “At the end of the day, it was two separate programs that, at that time, just didn’t belong anywhere.”
Today, collegiate table tennis is dominated by Texas Wesleyan — a program started by Lillieroos, the former Anderson College coach. In fact, Mark Hopkins played a significant role in working with that school’s administration to develop the framework for how to build and run a successful program.
Lillieroos used the lessons learned and the model deployed by Anderson College and Augusta College to build the sport’s longest-running dynasty. Since starting the program in 2002, Texas Wesleyan has won 69 total national championships, individual or team.
“All of the ideas we have about college table tennis in the modern day are from Texas Wesleyan and Christian Lillieroos,” said Leparulo. “Well, where did he get them from? Anderson and Augusta. They are the true trailblazers. They are the ones who brought even the possibility of having scholarship college table tennis programs to fruition.”
Like the other programs, Texas Wesleyan operates under the guidance of the NCTTA. The organization is focused on providing clarity, cohesion and guidance to a sport that has long relied on a collection of loose associations to offer some measure of structure to collegiate table tennis.
Many of the challenges, however, remain the same today as they were 30 years ago.
For instance, table tennis lacks an amateur status. As such, players at the various colleges can make money by competing in various tournaments during the regular season. Augusta College players, for instance, recalled competing in events throughout the year and collecting paychecks, however modest they might be, for their performance at those events.
This, of course, erects a distinct barrier to the sport ever earning an official status with the NCAA which — despite all the ongoing chatter around sharing revenues with student-athletes and name, image and likeness compensation — has traditionally opposed paying players in any capacity.
These obstacles get magnified in sports that are primarily viewed as being centered around the individual, like table tennis. Those sports offer the type of individual events which can pay out winnings depending on how a competitor finishes. In sports governed by the NCAA, the student-athlete can have previous winnings put into a bursar, and they must defer any prize money if they compete in a professional tournament.
That’s not true in table tennis.
“In table tennis right now, there is no definition for a professional or an amateur,” said Leparulo. “So, in college table tennis you’ll have former Olympians from other countries that are in college, and they’re legit because we make them go through the eligibility with the registrar’s office, so it’s more legit than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.”
NCTTA members participate in its series of annual events, helping to provide legitimacy to the sport that is sorely needed. But much work remains precisely because, for many college administrators, the unspoken stigma around what table tennis is remains.
“The NCTTA works very hard to show that table tennis is a player in collegiate sports,” said Steve Hopkins. “It’s noble, but it’s also tough for them, and all of us who care about the sport, because the truth is most schools still treat table tennis like a club sport, and they have them on the same level as billiards and foosball on campuses.”
At the collegiate level, the sport has made ample progress during the past 30 years. Sure, some of that progress may be incremental, but it’s also real and tangible.
There are now more than 40 schools actively involved with the NCTTA, and while many continue to operate as club programs, others, like Texas Wesleyan, employ a scholarship-based model to attract recruits and develop talent.
It’s a success built on the foundation laid by Anderson College and Augusta College.
“Table tennis on a college campus is a break-even venture,” said Steve Hopkins. “It’s not a money maker, and it’s not something that brings in massive amounts of fans.
“But it is a skilled sport, and it’s something where everybody kind of knows how to play it and everybody kind of likes to play it. And, man, when you get into it, you truly see that it is just a great, great sport.”