By Jeff Jackson
Sports and Feature Writer for the Roswell Daily Record
Last season's women's junior college tennis team at the New Mexico Millitary Institute had only four players, and all came from the Pacific Islands.
While tennis players often say they're on an island, several on the New Mexico Military Institute teams actually are from islands. Six of 11 players on the Broncos' two teams last season came from an island somewhere in the Oceania region, and it's been that way for years.
Father-and-son coaching team Dan and William O'Connell have a tennis pipeline that brings players half way around the world to Roswell and the military academy. It started 20 years ago when Dan founded an International Tennis Federation development program in Fiji that drew interest from NMMI's coaches at the time, Gene Hardman and Dick Satterlee. "I needed some place to send my champions and I didn't know what to do," Dan O'Connell said. "A coach said, 'Dan, you should try New Mexico Military Institute. That was the coach from a different junior college so I started this thing going and Gene Hardman said, 'Hey, whoever you have, I'll take them.' "
In 20 years, O'Connell estimates there have been more than 20 players from the islands who first went to the tennis center in Fiji and then to NMMI. And before O'Connell was building that program he worked in Africa, where he journeyed to with the Peace Corps.
"Sometimes it's hard to get people to come to NMMI," said O'Connell, who has dual citizenship with Fiji and the United States. "Beggars can't be choosers. There's no opportunities out there in the Pacific for these kids. They come here and they learn. My son came here and it wasn't for the tennis. It was because what you could learn in life here. NMMI was having a hard time recruiting people. It was a good fit and we offered full scholarships. Our kids came here and the majority of them that have come here have moved on to Division I or II scholarships."
All four players on the women's team last season are islanders and are returning for the 2015 fall season as sophomores. As players in Oceania, they are raw but when they get to NMMI they improve with competition plus receive a military academy education. "We've had two or three not make it academically, but you can ask any of them, it's changed their lives," Dan O'Connell said. "They never would have been able to leave their little island nation. But because of the ITF, they go to Fiji and they're not only speaking their language they're in a house with 12 kids from six or seven different nations; incredible learning situation for them and we made sure that in the evening they studied because they're student-athletes. The kids will be forever thankful for coming here. Here they learn life skills."
Two of those players, Lorraine Banimataku and Thea Minor, have already committed to play at Henderson State University in Arkansas in 2016, with full scholarships.
Despite fielding just four of a normal six players on the squad last spring, the Bronco women finished 18th within their group of 56 junior colleges in the nation. Individually, Minor and Lorish Puluspene reached the quarterfinals of their brackets, while Banimataku played in the consolation finals of her flight.
On the men's side, three of NMMI's best players from the islands over the years have been William O'Connell – now head coach of the Bronco men's team, Lawrence Tere, and Daneric Hazelman. William O'Connell defeated his close friend Hazelman in late June 6-0, 6-2 in the final of the Nadi Open in Nadi, Fiji. It was his second open championship of the month in Fiji. The two men also team up for in doubles events.
"Last year Daneric was the head coach here before William took over. So there's a long relationship there," Dan O'Connell said. "They've been best friends since they were 8, 9 years old. We got Daneric to come over here. He then went to Carthage College. He graduated and at that time that's when Gene passed away and they were looking for a head coach. I suggested Daneric and he took it for one year but he couldn't get a visa to remain in the states. So he had to leave."
William O'Connell represented Fiji in the 2013 Davis Cup and could again for 2016 if he qualifies during his play this summer, his father said.
In addition to the islands, Africa also has been a source of players for both Broncos teams, including two coming this year for each squad. That pipeline began when O'Connell left his home in Champaign, Illinois, for a Peace Corps mission in Lesotho, Africa. After two years of service, he chose to stay abroad.
"I didn't make a lot of money teaching tennis. I just did it because I loved it and in the long run it paid off," he said. "Fifty miles away on a farm was Craig Tiley's parents. Craig Tiley became the head coach of the University of Illinois in Champaign where I grew up. So here I am, from Champaign, I go all the way to Africa and then Craig Tiley was from Africa goes all the way to Illinois. He won a national championship for the University of Illinois (2003). And now Craig Tiley's the head man at Tennis Australia. So it's kinda of a small tennis world."
Although college rosters do have players from New Mexico and elsewhere in the USA, O'Connell says recruiting and developing domestic players is difficult, and more so at NMMI where athletes also are cadets and attend under strict guidelines. "I thought the junior colleges had it right the last four or five years when they said you could only have two internationals," O'Connell said. "They changed the rules this last year. First of all, two of the four girls on my team carry U.S. passports, so they're Americans. But now you can have all internationals and that's kind of sad for the American kids. … So we're losing scholarships for our American kids and they're going to internationals. I understand that point a lot and there really should be more done about it. But there's not and I'm going to get more internationals; that's my strength."
Crossing Pacific to play tennis at NMMI
By Jeff Jackson