Hammerschmidt Finds a ‘Home’ at Steward School
By John Packett
About three years ago, Kurt Hammerschmidt “ran into a wall,” as he described his meanderings around the Richmond area teaching tennis.
At the time, Hammerschmidt was running the programs at Hanover Country Club, Fox Hall Swim and Racquet Club and Wellesley Recreation Association, along with helping his wife, Lisa, with K&L Sports at their horse farm in Hanover County.
“For two and a half years, I was running three different little sites,” Hammerschmidt said the other day. “As well as K&L Sports. You’ve got one spot in the morning, drive to the other spot in the afternoon, then drive to another spot.
“You don’t really have a home. And that kind of wears on you in time.”
Hammerschmidt seems to have found a home at The Steward School in western Henrico County, where he is the varsity tennis coach for the boys and girls teams. The 45-year-old also runs summer camps and several junior tournaments at the private school.
“Three years ago, I got a call from Janet [Rice, Steward’s athletic director], and she asked me if I would entertain the idea of working here,” said Hammerschmidt, a former touring pro who has won 15 state titles in Michigan, Maryland and Virginia in singles and doubles.
Rice figured Hammerschmidt’s experience and knowledge of the game would greatly enhance the tennis program at Steward.
“We’ve had a boys tennis team and a girls tennis team for a long time,” said Rice. “And that was it. We really wanted Kurt to come in and be director of tennis programming. Not just focus on the girls and boys varsity teams, but try to develop the kids from JK [Junior Kindergarten] through 12.
“Try to build interest in tennis at The Steward School. The timing was perfect because we were adding tennis courts. Our Lower School and Middle School are our feeder programs. We’ve got a tremendous facility and now we’ve got a tremendous coach and director of programming.
“You can have great facilities but if you don’t have somebody like Hammerschmidt to put it all together, it won’t work.”
When Hammerschmidt arrived, the school was completing the installation of four new courts to go with the five already in place. The new baseball facility had taken over one of the courts, so Steward needed at least six to hold a match.
One of the five original courts was turned into four smaller courts (36 feet long) for the youngest kids. Steward became the first school in the country to have permanent courts of that type, according to the U.S. Tennis Association.
Hammerschmidt said the school received funding from the USTA, Mid-Atlantic Tennis Association and Richmond Tennis Association in making the smaller courts possible. Four of the original courts also have blended lines (at 60 feet) for younger children to use.
“You start with the little ones,” said Hammerschmidt. “That’s the key. That’s why we built them. The way they develop their strokes is different. When the ball doesn’t bounce as high and the courts are shorter and the kids can see over the net at their opponent, they like it better.
“It actually allows more kids to improve quicker, and hopefully that will keep them in tennis longer.”
In addition to the varsity teams that he coaches, Hammerschmidt conducts a Saturday stop on the Richmond Pros Junior Circuit during the summer, and Steward will play host to an L6- level tournament in August in conjunction with the RTA.
Hammerschmidt has developed what he terms the “Spartan Tennis Pathway,” which offers a year-round opportunity for the youngsters at Steward to learn the game from the time they enter until they finish.
His hope is that the children who take part in any of the pathway programs at Steward – from introduction to tennis through the Spartan Future Stars in the summer – will be prepared to play the game for the rest of their lives.
“The school wanted to create an avenue where we can develop tennis players from kindergarten right into the high-school level,” said Hammerschmidt. “Last year we were runners-up in the state in Division II [for Virginia Independent Schools].”
So far this spring (as of April 22), the boys’ team is 5-3, while the girls, who aren’t yet members of the VIS, are 6-0. The girls’ team is expected to begin playing a regular schedule in the fall with the rest of the state schools in the VIS.
“Right now, the tennis program is in blow-up mode,” said Hammerschmidt, who teamed with Country Club of Virginia pro Carl Clark to win a number of state and MATA doubles titles and reached the singles final of the State Clay Courts once.
“We have a lot of great participation, and it’s doubling every rotation that I put together. The program has not stopped growing yet. From zero to 70 in four rotations or four sessions. This will be my fifth session, starting this May.”
During the summer months, the programs at Steward are open to the general public.
“We’re hoping this summer, with the help of the RTA, we’ll be able to market this better and get the word out that this is a wonderful 10-and-under development program here at Steward,” said Hammerschmidt, a former All-American at Ferris State University.
Hammerschmidt envisions adding a staging area and a skyview gazebo to the current setup surrounding the courts, so that spectators would be able to watch play on all of the courts simultaneously. “Right now, that’s a dream vision,” he said. “No one’s eyeing it but me.”
The native of Saginaw, Mich., has already brought the school’s program a long way in just three years and he believes the best lies ahead.
“I’m very happy with this arrangement,” said Hammerschmidt. “It’s a beautiful thing when you have an unlimited supply of kindergartners. Every year I get 50 new [students] to introduce tennis to.
“If I can hypnotize 10 percent or maybe 20 percent of them to love tennis, then I’m doing my job.”