MADISON, Wis. – It’s the “P” word that Willy Leparulo dreads.
“It’s like putting nails on a chalk board,” Leparulo said. “It’s defeating some of the stereotype with just the general sport. Hopefully, by calling it table tennis you get a little bit more respect.”
Leparulo, 33, was a recreational player at Florida State University 14 years ago and admits that he ran into academic trouble because he played too much.
Now, he’s an academic adviser at the school and has been president of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association since 2004. The NCTTA’s roots began in 1992 with the League of Northeast Intercollegiate Table Tennis before its formal name-change in 1999.
In the nearly 10 years since, Leparulo has seen real signs their work has paid off, pointing to the popularity and growth on campuses. There are 124 collegiate teams in 17 geographic divisions with about 20 percent growth each year.
“Everyone says, ‘You’re going to reach a ceiling at some point,’ ” said Leparulo, who expects between 140 to 150 collegiate teams next season. “We haven’t seen that ceiling. Every year, it seems there’s schools that want to participate. There’s always this yearning, this drive for table tennis.”
That made sense to Andrew Knips of St. Paul, Minn., who picked Wisconsin over some other schools, in part, because he knew there was a local table tennis club of longtime players.
But Madison’s diverse international campus left a bubbling talent pool of not only basement hacks, but foreign students with real experience in the Olympic sport who had never walked through the local club’s doors.
Knips met Richard Qian and Brian Hibler, both of Brookfield, Wis., and worked to start table tennis as a club sport at Wisconsin in 2006.
“It has such an unusual reputation as not a sport, not popular, not requiring any skill or concentration. It’s considered a casual game and that’s probably why I’ve stayed with it for as long as I have,” said Knips, now a senior. “I’ve gotten exposed to the complete opposite side of that, the truth behind table tennis. I find it to be, of all the sports I’ve played, without a doubt the most challenging mentally for sure.”
Turns out, the rest of the team is pretty good, too.
Knips, who coaches on the side, is only the second-best player on the team. The group finished fifth nationally in its first year and is putting together another run this season that should get them invited to the national tournament in Rochester, Minn., in April.
“The one issue we have not had is acquiring members. We have had interest every single year, pretty much exponential interest,” Knips said. “Just this last year we had over 150 students try out to be in our club and we have only three pingpong tables.”
Yes, the club kept 60 players – which Knips acknowledges was still probably too many – and he said about 75 percent of the work involves coaching, with the rest dedicated to fundraising and playing.
Qian, 20, wrote a 27-page guide for future club leaders on forms that must be filled out, election of officers and fundraising efforts. He is also confident the sport is recession-proof, with low start up costs for college players who want to get involved.
“At a university level, most schools should have tables around at dorms or student unions,” said Qian, who moved from Beijing when he was 12.
Of course, every sport needs a dynasty.
That’s Texas Wesleyan.
The small Methodist university in Fort Worth is one of just four that offers table tennis scholarships. (The University of Puerto Rico, Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., and Darton College in Albany, Ga., are the others).
The Rams have excelled by winning 33 of the 45 possible collegiate titles over the past seven years, including the coveted coed team championship each of the last five.
“They’re the New York Yankees of college table tennis,” Leparulo said. “The beauty of having a school such as Texas Wesleyan is guess what? When the Yankees were successful, everyone wanted to beat them. Everyone wanted to be like them.”
Rams coach Jasna Reed knows her team is targeted wherever it goes.
“The competition is amazing,” Reed said. “We are lucky to have a great university president and athletic director who love table tennis and accept table tennis as one of other sports.”
Knips remembers running into the Rams.
“We got to play them two years ago and just got destroyed,” he said. “It was pretty fun, though.”