On Sept. 9, 12 ETHS badminton players faced off in the gym of Stevenson High School.
On Sept. 9, 12 ETHS badminton players faced off in the gym of Stevenson High School.
Isaac Suarez-Flint

Wildkits ‘at the forefront’ of boys badminton

ETHS, Stevenson, Warren compete in first interscholastic boys badminton tournament on Illinois record

On Sept. 9, 12 ETHS badminton players faced off in the gym of Stevenson High School. With sweeping volleys and rocketing smashes, the athletes traded shots with opponents and darted across the shining floors, taking the beloved backyard game to its next level.

For the Kits, this is no remarkable event. Badminton has been a staple of girls athletics—in Illinois and ETHS—since the first IHSA-sponsored state tournament in 1977, which saw Evanston’s Sandy Keenan taking third in singles. Since then, the Kits have returned to state under the leadership of Coach Karilyn Joyce, continuing a tradition of athleticism that stretches back almost 50 years. Just a few months ago, the upstairs gym G220 was renamed for former badminton coach and athletic director Shirley Naninni, multiple time winner of the Illinois Badminton Coach of the Year.

The competition at Stevenson, however, was a first for ETHS and for the state as a whole. For one key reason: its participants were boys.

It’s no coincidence that badminton began competitively within five years of the passing of Title IX; under the law, for each male-only sport a public school offers, there must be a female-only sport as well. For years, badminton has remained available in the extracurricular sphere solely for girls.

However, since badminton has been in the freshman-sophomore physical education curriculum, it’s stirred interest.

“I’ve been coaching girls badminton for quite a while,” said Christopher Turner, ETHS PE teacher and badminton coach. “And a lot of times I teach freshman boys. A lot of students would ask, ‘Can we join the girls team?’ I would say, ‘Well, no, it’s a girls’ team.’ They’d ask, ‘Why don’t we have a boys team?’ And I was like, ‘That’s a good question.”

An overwhelming amount of outreach from boys for decades piled up; there was clearly interest at ETHS, but what about the rest of the state? Without an IHSA division and a league of teams to compete against, boys badminton looked like it would be regulated to recreational backyard games and PE class.

But then, that changed. It wasn’t student interest that ultimately kicked off ETHS boys badminton, it was an outside force.

In the winter of 2022, Stevenson High School announced their intention to begin a boys badminton team. Stevenson, a school with a history of outstanding girls badminton at the state, national, and even Olympic levels, was the first Illinois school to do so. Evanston soon followed, agreeing to compete against them in the 2023-2024 season.

After Turner was recruited to manage the club, the program kicked off on Aug. 21 with an informational meeting.

”I was so nervous that there were going to be hundreds of boys [at the first meeting],” athletic director Chris Livatino said. “I actually didn’t promote [the club] at all, except for saying some things to incoming freshmen. I just assumed it spread by word of mouth.”

Among the 49 Wildkits that attended, excitement was immediate. Junior Owen Seaver was among them.

“Before high school, I never played badminton,” Seaver said. “Because of gym class, I started playing, and a bunch of my friends would play every week. This year, Mr. Turner sent an email saying badminton’s a thing for boys, so we joined. We didn’t expect there to be as many people as there were.”

This year, the club is divided between those who want to play for leisure and those who wish to play competitively.  While badminton is a staple of recreational backyard activity, the history of the sport—in Illinois and ETHS—is riddled with athletic excellence.

“The Midwest probably has the most competitive badminton [of any state],” Turner said.

“We have a pretty good solid strong history of being successful [in girls badminton]. But there are other schools around the area, like the Stevensons, the Napervilles, New Triers that do a lot of training. These girls train for 10, 11, 12 months out of the year.”

For now, the boys team only practices two to three times a week, due to its status as a club and not a full-fledged sport. Despite this, players have been putting in the extra effort to take the game to its competitive level.

The first recorded interscholastic boys badminton tournament in Illinois history, the meet with Stevenson and Warren signaled a beginning of a new level of badminton—both for Evanston and the state.

The Kits participated in both singles—where there is one opponent on each side—and doubles—where competitors play in two-person teams—matches. They won no matches against Stevenson but took the win in four singles and their top four doubles against Warren. Ethan Brush, Owen Seaver, and Michael Le won both their doubles and singles matches,

“Having ETHS at the forefront of growing the sport of badminton in Illinois is so exciting!” coach Tina Lulla wrote in an email. “Our players represented our school with pride and sportsmanship.”

The team will have a rematch with Stevenson later in the season, offering an opportunity to show improvement. While initial participation has been enthusiastic in Evanston, the sport hasn’t gained traction for boys statewide.

“Right now, no one else has surfaced,” Livatino said. “It seemed like there were a lot of other schools that were interested. It’s just hard to do this.”

In the 2024 season, Coach Turner plans to limit the club to solely competitive athletes. This year, boys badminton will focus on building foundations as a club sport before the program is expected to be integrated into the IHSA.

“Come check [badminton] out,” Turner encouraged. “It is a great sport. It’s a fun sport. It could be a lifelong sport. You could play leisurely. You could play at your own intensity level.”

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