Pro Player Season Preview: Who's In, Who's Up, & Who's Out in 2015-2016
The 2014-2015 IRT season was full of drama with speculation about the season-ending #1 IRT ranking position rampant, but not in the way most people would think. Kane Waselenchuk’s dominance of the top ranking has become such a mainstay it’s almost become… well…common. His mastery of the game, however, is anything but ordinary, and his performances on court played out as a nightly ESPN highlight reel. This season however, “King Kane” came dangerously close to losing his crown and raised some very interesting online debate concerning the IRT’s ranking system. How could a player not finish the season #1 after winning almost every tournament he entered? The answer, for fans paying attention, was the ironman performance of the Tour’s number two-ranked pro, Rocky Carson.
Carson took full advantage of Waselenchuk’s absences by playing in nearly every Tier 1 event all season. Carson made the final of nearly every event Kane missed and won most. By contrast, with Waselenchuk in the draw, Carson still made a high number of finals, but didn’t win a single event. Even as his consistency and physical game style firmly planted him in the #2 spot and nearly 1000 points ahead of #3 Alvaro Beltran at season’s end, he was likely disappointed after spending so much of the season at the top.
Carson’s indoor season was extended however, and ended on a winning note of Gold in Men’s Singles at the Pan American Games in Toronto, and a Silver medal with the USA Racquetball Men’s Team. This was Carson’s second Pan Am Games Gold Medal in Men’s Singles and combined with his four Gold in Men’s Singles at the World Championships, he is easily the most decorated Men’s Singles player in International Racquetball Federation history. While this doesn’t translate to success against Waselechuk, it does speak volumes about the high level of play that Carson brings to the court on a consistent basis, and how hard it is to match the stratospheric level Waselenchuk has found.
Alvaro Beltran, a top player from Mexico and fixture near the top of the IRT rankings for well over a decade, finished for the third year in a row at #3. Mixed success against Rocky and even less against Kane, combined with several early exits and no titles, widened the gap between the #2 and #3 positions to nearly 1,000 points. Inconsistency was prevalent in the “smooth as silk” veteran’s play during the 2014-2015 IRT season, and one has to wonder how much his age played a factor in his performance and the rumored retirement from competing with the world’s best on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour before he entered the 2015 Novasors Ghost of Georgetown Kansas City Opener.
#4 Daniel De La Rosa also had a fantastic season, continuing his climb up the rankings to finish at #4. His first Tier 1 victory came this season and he has shown that he has the game to beat anyone on tour, except perhaps Kane, on any given day, and his court mobility and exciting game style ensure he will have many fans to follow his continued success. Remaining in the top 3 is the next step in this young gun’s career, and it will not be easy, but with a little more consistency he definitely has what it takes to steal the spot from the aging guard.
Jose Rojas had another season which mirrored his game style; aggressive and inconsistent. If not for an injured Ben Croft he could easily have finished outside the top 5 but was able to hold onto his spot with some strong play at the beginning of the season. One-sided losses to Coby Iwaasa and Daniel De La Rosa at the tail end of the season hopefully served as his motivation to step it up during the 2015-2016 IRT Season because it will be an extremely exciting season if he can.
If it was a disappointing season for Jose Rojas, it was even more so for Ben Croft, who missed events near the end of the season and had shoulder surgery in April. The Illinois native who now calls California home spoke about his injury and future (Shoulder Surgery Ends Ben Croft’s Season Early May 2015). Croft’s goal was to miss the fewest events possible and be back in game shape by the 2015 UnitedHealthcare US Open Racquetball Championships. Only time will tell if this goal is realized, but videos Croft released on Facebook indicate the recovery is going very well. Ben is one of the players on Tour whose work ethic and passion are above reproach. Look for him to climb the rankings this season.
Jansen Allen had a stellar season, ending the 2014-2015 IRT season with a career high #7 after making eight quarterfinals and one semifinal this season. His training, dedication, and consistency have showed in his performances on court, in singles, and as he teamed up with Jose Rojas to take Gold for Team USA in Men’s Doubles racquetball competition at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada. Although he finished the season well behind Ben Croft at #6, he will be riding high on a wave of confidence going into this season. He will need to capitalize on key matchups with Rojas, Croft, and De La Rosa this season if he is to continue his trek up the rankings, but he has shown that he deserves to be in the top 8. We will be watching with rapt anticipation to see if he can peak at the right times during the 2015-2016 IRT season.
Marco Rojas also showed some solid improvement this year, clawing into the top 8 at season’s end 100 points ahead of IRT Referee and #11 Charlie Pratt, who trails Jansen Allen by just 57 points. The Stockton native had difficulty posting wins against others in the top 8, but did put up some solid single games against Rocky and Kane during the season. If he is to improve his rank further this year he will have to be more successful against other members of elite top 8 pros.
It seems officiating was the key to success on Tour for IRT Referee Charlie Pratt, who made his way into the top 10 for the first time in his career after finishing at #21 just two seasons ago. Ending this season at #9, while definitely a high for Pratt, may have ended up in the shadow of greater things, as he also became engaged to girlfriend Cecilia Orozco during the season and married shortly afterwards. He’s stepped aside from his position as the IRT’s Head Referee, but will compete in at least select events, with an expected start at the 2015 UnitedHealthcare US Open Racquetball Championships.
Tony Carson ended up with the last spot in the top 10 after a slide down the rankings precipitated by a hiatus from competition for most of the last half of the 2014-2015 IRT season. Several other players made splashes this season with perhaps the biggest by Alejandro “Alex” Landa who began as a qualifier and fought all the way through to the semifinals of the 2014 UnitedHealthcare US Open Racquetball Championships. Landa posted wins against Allen, Rojas, and De La Rosa this season, showing that he has the game to hang with the top 8 on Tour. Playing more Tier 1s would definitely open up the opportunity to crack the top 8 in the rankings, but Alex is one of several players who play only a handful of events each season. While we hope that changes next year, fans may have to be happy with the few flashes of brilliance and excitement he provides at those events.
Robert Collins, Jose Diaz, Matthew Majxner, and Danny Lavely have also become more consistent presences in the top 16, and offer consistent challenges to those just above them in the rankings. Young Canadian champion, Coby Iwaasa could also become a fixture on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour in years to come after posting some fantastic battles with Daniel De La Rosa plus a win against Jose Rojas in the 2014-2015 IRT Season. Many eyes will be on him and many other young players as a new season begins on the IRT.
The 2015-2016 IRT season holds no shortage of exciting prospects and storylines to follow. Questions abound about Kane and Ben’s respective health. Who will be playing the Tour consistently, and who will be absent? Will Allen, Rojas, and De La Rosa continue their rise up the rankings? Will the young guns challenge the old guard? Will Kane’s majestic dominance continue? Time will answer all these questions, but we already know the answer to whether this year on the men’s professional International Racquetball Tour (IRT) will be exciting. With all the factors involved there is simply no way it can’t be.
By Tim Landeryou
Tim Landeryou is a competitive racquetball player from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He began playing racquetball at the age of 10 and has represented Canada internationally since 2010 and achieved a career-high IRT season end ranking of 16 in 2014-15. He completed his Master of Science in Kinesiology at the University of Saskatchewan in 2015 and now works as a sport administrator in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.