Sometimes, sports transcends life, and when that happens it can be pretty special. The Mitch N' Friends tennis program is a shining example of that.
On its Facebook site, the information page reads: “The mission of Mitch N' Friends is to provide fun tennis instruction to children and adults with special needs.”
That's exactly what Mitch N' Friends has been doing since the inception of the Edwardsville Futures pro tennis tournament in 2011. Now, it has become a year - round program and a staple for special needs players in the Edwardsville area.
The muse for Mitch N' Friends is Mitch McGinnis. Mitch's twin sister, Morgan, played for the Edwardsville Tiger girls' tennis program and now plays at Quincy University. His younger sister, Annie, is a member of the EHS program now, so it's been a family affair for the McGinnis clan.
Mitch was always hanging around the tennis courts with his family when the idea of Mitch N' Friends arose. Mitch has autism, and the thought was it was a way to involve him and other special needs individuals with an opportunity to play tennis and make new friends.
The 2016 version of Mitch N' Friends at the Edwardsville Futures took place on July 25 at the EHS Tennis Center . This year’s program had a record number of entries.
“ This grows every year, and we're really excited about it,” said Kevin McGinnis, Mitch's dad and the president of Mitch N' Friends. “When we started this five years ago, I was just reminded, it started with three kids and now we have upward of 15. It's nice seeing it grow, and having all the pros and the EHS players willing to help, it's nice seeing it grow that way, too.”
It is truly a community involvement. Players come out with their families, and EHS coaches, players and alumni are there to coach, as well as professionals from the Edwardsville Futures. There is also pizza and drinks available for the players, and music over the speakers for their entertainment.
Mitch enjoys it and has made a slew of new friends.
“ I like playing tennis and eating some pizza,” Mitch said. “I like cheese.”
He's got his favorites he plays with.
“ I like playing with Kamali (Mitchell) and Seth (Lipe),” Mitch said.
Seth Lipe will be a sophomore player for the Tiger program this season, while Kamali Mitchell is another stalwart player in the Mitch N' Friends program. Kamali is 21 and has Down Syndrome, but that definitely doesn't hinder his abilities to become a fundamentally sound tennis player.
“ Look at Kamali, he never stops,” Edwardsville Futures tournament director and EHS head boys' and girls' tennis coach Dave Lipe said. “He hits a perfect backhand every time. He follows through perfect on his forehand. The kid knows how to play tennis.”
Kevin added, “It seems like they all have fun on a different level. You can see Kamali, you can't get him off the court over there. Some kids don't stay on the court as long, but it's seems to me they are all having fun and a big part of this is to introduce them to tennis and I think we're doing a good job of that.”
When Kamali finally took a break from the action, he talked about his love of the sport, Mitch N' Friends and Lipe's Edwardsville program.
“ Playing tennis is terrific,” Kamali said. “Dave is a great teacher. He thanked us for coming. This is a great night for tennis.”
And, of course, Kamali recognized the namesake of Mitch N' Friends, his longtime playing partner and friend.
“ I like playing tennis with Mitch,” Kamali said. “We play a lot and Mitch is better.”
Dave Lipe was out on the court working with players during the event. He said he loves the fact it has transformed into a year - round program now.
“ These are tennis players that we've spent a lot of time with on the court,” he said. “It's fun to get to know them and their families, and then we've got to make some new friends tonight and that's great, too. I played with Emma (Baer) tonight and she's a fantastic kid. It was fun playing tennis with her. Everybody deserves a chance to play tennis. Mitch N' Friends started at the Futures and it has turned into a year - round program of which we can be proud. Kevin does a fantastic job as president.”
One of the unique aspects of the Mitch N' Friends night during the Futures is Mitch gets to pick out a different color for the T-shirts.
“ Mitch gets to pick out the shirts every year and we went with blue,” Kevin said. “One of the thoughts was going with the royal blue, because in April there is an Autism Awareness Day and people are encouraged to wear this color blue. We're hoping people remember on April 2, 2017 and people will wear the Mitch N' Friends shirt and get some use out of it then.
“ Mitch has them all and I think we all have them all. It's part of the McGinnis f amily wardrobe.”
And Mitch N' Friends is part of the McGinnis f amily makeup, just as it has become a foundation for the Edwardsville tennis community. They are all family and it brings everyone together, including the EHS players in attendance to help out.
Lipe hopes the teaching experience provides a learning experience to boot.
“ It's a two-way street, ” Lipe said. “A s a teacher, I learn every day in my classroom and I think these (EHS) kids are learning out here toda y. J ust like everything else, we keep improving. It's a fun night of tennis.”
Maybe most of all , Mitch enjoys sharing the evening with his sisters, even after the tennis.
“ We're going to go home and watch Pokemon,” Mitch said.