By James Bash
For the Hollywood Star News
Rocking back and forth on their heels with paddles at the ready, each player focused intently on the little orange ball that would be served. Then the taps, slices and smashes got underway with ping pong balls zipping across five different tables. It was a round robin tournament on a Friday evening in June at the Ambridge Event Center (1333 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.) where the Ambridge Table Tennis Club holds court. The games were lively and friendly, and the balls that fell to the floor were quickly gathered with a special device that trapped them in a net after the round was finished (best three of five).
Because the Friday-night round robins are self-monitored, there were no referees in striped shirts standing about. Participants simply reported the results to Coach Jeff Mason, who kept track of everything and announced the pairings for each round.
Mason, a lithe fellow with a neatly trimmed beard, is the top drawing card of the club. He has won three national titles, competed internationally and coached table tennis since the age of 17. He is one of 72 coaches who are qualified by the USA Table Tennis association to train the USA World and Olympic teams.
“My dad started me in table tennis when I was ten or eleven,” recalled Mason. “We lived in Sacramento. After I won the city championship, he took me to a tournament in the Bay Area where I got badly beaten by this girl who was such a fine player. She knew all of these strokes, and I didn’t know anything at all. That really inspired me to learn how to play. I was probably 12 years old.”
After that debacle, Mason took training very seriously, entering clinics and camps where he received coaching from some world champions. Within a few years, he was the runner-up in the Junior Division of the national championship. Then he won a US championship and mixed doubles titles, and more.
Mason has been teaching table tennis since the age of 17. In Sacramento, he ran Table Tennis World, which was the largest table tennis club in the nation and an Olympic training center. He was in his eighth year there when he suffered a serious back injury while training. That led him to go into teaching, and he did that for 17 years. He last taught elementary school in Reedsport, Oregon, and that was also where his wife, Sandy, taught high school. They retired to Vancouver, Wash., just over a year ago.
Although he didn’t plan to start a table tennis club, the idea came to fruition because Mason met Alan Peters, an avid table tennis player who owns the Ambridge Event Center. Now at its anniversary mark, the Ambridge Table Tennis Club has 200 members. About 75 of them are “core” members who are serious about taking lessons, clinics, and classes in order to improve their skills enough to get to the advanced level. One of the core members who participated in the round robin competition was Molly Little. She started playing table tennis in her early 20s at the University of Oregon back in the days of ping pong diplomacy.
“Judy Hoarfrost was my inspiration,” said Little. “She was a member of the US team that made history in 1971 by being among the first Americans to go to China. She was only 15, and she is from Oregon. After learning how to play the game, I got away from it for a long time. Now I’m having fun with it again here at Ambridge Table Tennis Club.”
Mason considers the club a training center.
“I’m not so interested in competition,” he remarked. “The top level is not as much fun. It can get very intense and ugly. But this club is a blast.”
The Ambridge Table Tennis Club is open four days a week: Sundays (9 a.m.-5 p.m.), Mondays (3-9 p.m.), Tuesdays (1-9 p.m.), and Fridays (3-9 p.m.). The club’s schedule rotates between open play, training sessions for various levels, individual lessons, practice matches and round robin tournaments. The membership fee is $25 a month, but drop-ins can participate in open play or Friday night round robin tournaments for $5. For more information, see jeffmasontabletennis.net.
The Ambridge Table Tennis Club has
200 members, about 75 of them are ‘core’ members who are serious about taking lessons, clinics, and classes in order to improve their skills enough to get to the advanced level. (Ambridge Table Tennis Club)