Leonardo Carrillo, 9, and 10-year-olds Kenneth Velez and Jose Rodriguez, students at Ricardo Flores Magon Academy in Westminster, won the 10 and under championship at the Colorado State Junior Tennis Tournament on Aug. 14 at the Colorado Athletic Club.
The tournament, one of the state's most difficult, drew hundreds of schools and up to 1,000 players, said Flores Magon principal Marcos Martinez. Hosted by the United States Tennis Association, the boys had to win that league, playing other country clubs and private tennis organizations, in order to qualify for the tournament.
The three boys, who make up one of several competitive teams at the academy, played to a record of 8 and 0 in the league and 4 and 0 at the tournament, Martinez said, playing against prestigious teams like the Denver Country Club.
Kenneth said his parents were proud he stuck with it to the end.
"They said if I did well and keep on going, I can become a tennis champion some day," Kenneth said. He said the idea sounded good to him.
Eighty percent of the students at the K-6 preparatory academy are learning English as a second language, and 90 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch programs, Martinez said.
Leonardo, Kenneth and Jose are no different from their peers. Martinez said all three boys are first- or second-generation Mexican immigrants who come from difficult backgrounds.
"Four years ago, these students didn't even know what tennis was," Martinez said.
Tennis and chess are part of the curriculum at Flores Magon because studies show those problem-solving activities also improve academic performance, said Martinez, who founded the school in 2007.
The approach appears to be working. The school, which is a part of the Charter School Institute District funded by the state, had CSAP scores that placed it in the top 8 percent of Colorado schools for the 2009-2010 academic year.
In addition to the trio on the 10 and under team, Flores Magon has a girls tennis competitive 12-and-under team, a coed 10-and-under recreation team and a 12-and-under recreation team. Every student at the school spends up to 100 hours per year practicing the sport at school, Martinez said, even though the campus has no tennis courts.
He said Flores Magon is the only public school that includes tennis as a part of its curriculum, which is why it did not play other local elementary schools.
Because tennis is often a country club sport, seeing those boys defeat every other team in the tournament was all the sweeter, he said.
"They had borrowed or used racquets, and the others had nice things. But ours have the 'ganas'," Martinez said.
Nick Avila, the team's coach, said tennis matches turned out to be just as much of a learning experience for the kids' families as it was for them.
Tennis was rather foreign to them, Avila said. And walking into places like the Ranch Country Club was for most a new experience.
"The kids were in awe," Avila said. "There were fresh linens, lots of courts, the most expensive equipment A lot of them wouldn't have seen this kind of lifestyle without tennis."
Leonardo's dad, Edgar Carrillo, said his family often felt unwelcome when their son first began playing.
"We had to teach him to ignore those negative vibrations from people," Carrillo said. "We would remind him our focus is on love of the game."
Carrillo said after Leonardo won the CARA (Colorado Association of Recreational Athletes) state championship on his own last year, other tennis players began to recognize him, and the family felt more comfortable.
He estimated about 2 percent of the kids he saw playing in the USTA tournament were Latino.
"Really, at every tournament, they were the only Mexican kids there," Martinez said of the three boys.
After Avila graduated from law school, he started teaching tennis as a temporary job. Just over a year later, Avila said he realized he didn't want to leave. It's too fulfilling, he said.
As a coach, Avila said he believes the key to his students' success is to keep from becoming an overbearing coach.
"I just let them play. And they just drove themselves. It all comes down to them," he said.
Jose said he wanted to try harder knowing that Avila was supporting his team. "He had faith," Jose said.