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Thursday, 10 September 2015 16:02

Bonded: Coach, athlete create special relationship

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April Shaffer, above left, was a starting doubles player at Delavan-Darien as a junior and a No. 2 singles player last year as a senior. She now helps Sandee Ortiz coach the Comets. April Shaffer, above left, was a starting doubles player at Delavan-Darien as a junior and a No. 2 singles player last year as a senior. She now helps Sandee Ortiz coach the Comets. Terry Mayer/Staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Sandee Ortiz was the coach, April Shaffer the athlete. That relationship, like the one between parents and their children, often dictates a delicate balance.

But when those relationships click, the bond grows much stronger. In this case, Ortiz and Shaffer, who has a cognitive disability, became what they treasure most -- friends.

Ortiz has coached girls and boys tennis and taught at Delavan-Darien High School for the last 18 years and has run the local parks and recreation program for 19. She also has run a tennis camp for high school students for 17 summers.

And it’s through tennis that Ortiz and Shaffer’s friendship germinated and blossomed.

“April was one of my students in physical education class and truly loved being active and participating,” Ortiz said. “We developed a strong bond and she ended up managing the boys tennis team her freshman year. After that experience, I asked her if she was interested in playing tennis the upcoming fall season, and she was a little hesitant because of her skill level. Her first response was, ‘I will think about it.’ I said, ‘Why? We don’t cut in tennis, so you will make the team regardless of your ability.’ I asked her to attend my tennis camp over the summer and she showed up every day and worked hard. April was on the courts that fall participating on the DDHS girls team.”

Shaffer made the varsity squad her junior year, playing No. 3 doubles, and then competed at No. 2 singles for the Comets as a senior.

“I never had a special education student achieve what April has,” Ortiz said of Shaffer, who also has gained accolades in Special Olympics circles. “In the 18 years of coaching boys and girls tennis, we never have seen any special ed student compete at the varsity level in our conference. Because of April’s work ethic, she overcame many obstacles.”

The 18-year-old is happy she took Ortiz’s advice to try out and can’t thank her mentor enough.

“The first time playing tennis was my sophomore year of high school,” said Shaffer, who also made her first and only two-pointer in the Comets’ final home basketball game against Burlington last February. “I got involved my freshman year during boys tennis and by Coach Ortiz getting me to play. She was the head coach and I really thought she was a wonderful person to learn from. She believed in me and believed I could learn to play.

“I like playing tennis with friends,” Shaffer added. “I like being active. It is fun to play tennis when I don’t have anything else to do. Coach Ortiz makes tennis so much fun and she is very competitive. I like being on the courts. It feels like home and it makes me feel relaxed and my stress goes away.”

And nobody knows better than Ortiz how much time and effort Shaffer has put in.

“April is a hard-working student who really enjoys competing in sports,” Ortiz said. “She has a great personality and is truly a kind-hearted person. It is without hesitation that I say April’s work ethic, competitiveness, determination and commitment are what contribute to her success both on and off the courts.

“April’s tennis game has come a long way,” Ortiz said. “She definitely started off with limited skills and coordination. Tennis is a game that, if played long enough, you get better with time and experience. It is evident that April’s game continues to improve. We spent all summer every Tuesday working on her serve and ground strokes. We worked on heavier topspin and she developed a consistent backhand.”

And Shaffer, who graduated last June, has learned those lessons well.

“My strengths during matches are ground strokes and keeping the ball in play,” Shaffer said. “Coach Ortiz spent a lot of time helping me with topspin. She said it is important to keep the ball in play. She helps me work on the things that I don’t do well in matches. She also helps me get work on my mental toughness. Coach Ortiz is nice and she gave me free lessons every Tuesday to get ready for Special Olympics. I know she cares about me and wanted me to win the gold medal, and I did.”

This year’s accomplishment came after winning silver last year and the bronze the year before.

“I got involved with Special Olympics during my junior year in high school,” Shaffer said, playing basketball and tennis and earning her gold medal in tennis while competing in the A Class at state this summer.

Ortiz volunteered at her first Special Olympics event as an Adapted PE student teacher at Nicolet High School and said it was a rewarding and promising experience, so helping Shaffer shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“We are hoping someday to get her qualified for the World Olympics,” Ortiz said.

Through it all, the coach and the athlete have continued to build that bond.  

“April began managing tennis for the boys team in 2013, and during that time I helped her develop routines such as opening up the shed, setting up equipment and prepping the courts on match day,” Ortiz said. “She never missed a practice or a match either. She would open up the shed and set up the cards. She would even have the scorebooks on the counter waiting for me. April managed the boys team for three seasons and now that her eligibility is over, she is managing and assisting for the girls team.”

Ortiz has close to 40 girls out this fall, and she said not having an assistant or JV coach has been challenging. And that’s where Shaffer comes in.

“April has not only served as a manager, but she is starting to become an assistant coach,” Ortiz said. “She identifies what players are doing wrong and she is able to give corrections in fixing common errors in our JV players’ strokes. April travels with the team to all matches and she keeps track of the JV scorebook.

“I truly hope that someday April will be coaching the Comets, because I know she is capable of being a good coach,” Ortiz added. “It would make my career at DDHS if April became my JV coach. That would be the highlight of my career.”

Needless to say, the admiration is mutual.

“I feel my strengths are working with people at practice and matches,” said Shaffer, who participated in band in high school and hopes to work with animals someday. “I love coaching with Coach Ortiz because she’s organized at practice and always has things for me to do so I can help coach the JV players. She is like my best friend, and I know she cares about me.”

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