MetroSquash opened a $6.5 million new facility in Woodlawn on Friday. [Photos by DNAinfo/Sam Cholke]
WOODLAWN — Woodlawn became the hub of squash on the South Side — and possibly in the entire city — Friday when MetroSquash opened a new $6.5 million squash facility.
The 21,000-square-foot facility at 6100 S. Cottage Grove Ave. adds eight new squash courts, which will double the number of kids who can play the racquet game at the center.
“When you think of squash, you think of the vegetable, right?” said Kyle Larry, a sophomore at Kenwood Academy, while getting a slap on the back from a chuckling Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Larry is one of 150 kids that train — and get a little help with their homework — with MetroSquash, a decade-old program that had largely gone unnoticed by many outside of the South Side.
Until April 1, MetroSquash was squeezing its players in around the college students at the University of Chicago’s Henry Crown Field House and provided tutoring in an office tucked away on the upper floors of University Church in Hyde Park.
That low profile made it easy to miss that squash, often stereotyped as the sport-of-choice among East Coast elite, was becoming more and more popular among kids at Kenwood Academy in Kenwood, Gary Comer College Prep in South Shore and Kozminski Elementary School in Hyde Park.
“This is who plays squash, children our community,” said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th).
A connection to a tonier world of squash was still in evidence though.
Nicholas Alexos, a managing partner at financial consultant Madison Dearborn Partners, beamed as he watched three high school players warm up before the afternoon tournament.
“This is really making a difference in lives,” said Alexos, who along with 10 other partners at the firm together contributed more than $1 million to build the facility.
Larry and the other players said the seven new singles courts and one doubles courts were improvement over the courts at the University of Chicago.
“This is what an international-level court looks like,” Larry said, adding that he was no longer afraid of breaking a racquet like at the concrete courts at the university.
The program will expand next year to 300 players from 150, and coaches said it wouldn’t be hard to bring in new kids when the recruits can try squash for the first time on a real court.
“Now it will be easier because we can bring them here. Before we had to pitch them on the idea,” said Mike McDonald, the director and head coach who starts recruiting new players in elementary and middle school. “This center is going to sell itself.”
McDonald said the players come in for nine hours each week for a regime that’s split between drills, scrimmages and tutoring and homework help.
McDonald and the other coaches equally praised their students on their athleticism as well as their academics.
“You can’t go wrong by investing in kids, they always surprise you on the upside in how well they can do,” Emanuel said.
About a dozen high school players rotated between the courts, testing out the idiosyncrasies of each, before the National Junior Squash Tournament, the first tournament in the new facility, began in earnest in the early evening.
Coaches said it will be much easier to attract new players now that MetroSquash has its own courts, rather than using the courts at the University of Chicago.
The MetroSquash program combines athletic and academic training for middle and high school students.
The new facility will allow MetroSquash to double the number of players it trains to 300 from 150 over the next year.
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