The creation of the first Highland Table Tennis League since the 1980s is already bearing fruit with a trio of youngsters making impacts at national level.
And with Inverness Tennis and Squash Club inviting the players to use its city venue, there is plenty of reasons for optimism at the start of a new era for the sport.
There is a local buzz around top Inverness players Connor Cadden, 13, and 11-year-olds Alexander Stepney and Lacey Cadden, who is Connor’s sister.
The boys are part of the elite Scottish development squad and frequently travel to training camps in Largs.
Alexander is on track to represent Scotland Primary Schools in the UK Championships to be held in Jersey in 2024. He is also ranked in top four in Scotland at primary school level.
Connor is currently ranked seventh in the Scottish under-13s category, while Lacey is fighting for a place in the primary school girls UK Championship team.
Mike Dow, secretary of the HTTL, and club chair and coach Rae Jack, driven by top class coach Stephen Gertsen, worked in unison to bring table tennis back to a competitive level, although the make-up is fairly different to almost 40 years ago.
Youngsters making real impacts
Mike said: “The Inverness ‘A’ team, the number one team this year, the number one player Connor Cadden is 13-years-old. He’s ranked seventh in the (Scottish) under-14s.
“The Moray number two player, a young lad called Alexander Stepney, whose dad is a top-class bowler, is just 11.
“He is almost certainly going to make the Scotland primary school boys’ team that will compete in Jersey next year in the UK Championships.
“There are a few other youngsters, such as Connor’s sister Lacey, who is also 11, showing promise for the Inverness C team.
“There is a real disparity in ages. You have myself and my mate, Arthur Laws, who are in our 70s and these really young players.
“I played and then had a 40-year gap, now we’re getting beaten by the 11, 12 and 13-year-olds. That’s what it’s all about.”
Ten teams competing in new league
The Highland League is run over three Sundays. The first round of matches have been played, with January 28 and March 10 the other dates for the diary.
Mike outlined how teams from across the north saw the benefits of playing in a competitive set-up once more.
He said: “Unlike in 1986-87, when table tennis collapsed completely in Inverness, we have towns such as Dingwall, Tain, Fort William and Nairn competing along with Inverness.
“In the mid-80s, we had two leagues and we had teams for the schools, the fire service, the hospitals, the squash club, the boys’ clubs, and the YMCA with three teams all competing. They were all local to Inverness, whereas it’s more north-based now.
“Stephen Gertsen came to town in 2017. He’s a sports and fitness lecturer at the UHI in Moray.
“He played for Wales in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and he’s been team manager for Scotland and is currently on the Scottish selection board. He picked the thing up by the bootstraps here.
“After all these years, we’d never had competitive table tennis in Inverness, or the Inverness area. We decided to go further afield this time, because we knew of these towns all having teams.
“I spoke to representatives from each of these teams and they were all for us forming a Highland League.
“We run it in the same format the national leagues run on. It’s three Sundays – there are 10 teams in the league and every team plays every other team once, so that’s nine matches and the winner takes all at the end of it.”
Lacey was awarded Player of the Day for our club at Highland League yesterday. She put in strong performances winning 5 out of 6 singles matches and 1 doubles also, securing plenty of points for Inverness C.
Lacey is part of the Inverness Development Squad. pic.twitter.com/pFtv1C7Xnf
— Inverness Table Tennis Club (ITSC) (@InvernessTT) November 13, 2023
Squash players are stars to follow
Three squash players in recent years have hit the heights playing professionally for Scotland, having come from the Bishops Road club.
Scottish number one and Commonwealth Games medalist Greg Lobban broke into the world’s top 20 this year and has been a consistent title winner and medalist since turning pro in 2012.
Alan Clyne was Scotland’s top player for 12 years, reached a world ranking of 24, and won 10 Scottish national titles.
Lobban and Clyne won the gold medal winner for Scotland at the 2016 World Doubles Championships in Australia.
Alasdair Prott secured his first major tournament in Australia this summer and has eyes on breaking into the world’s top 100 in 2024.
Mike hopes being part of the same city venue can lead to a similar launchpad for table tennis players for years to come.
He added: “Inverness Table Tennis Club are now part of Inverness Tennis and Squash Club on Bishops Road.
“Every one of the table tennis players is a member of the club. The club have kindly given us an upstairs studio and for the three Sundays where the league is played, they have effectively allowed us to use the studio and the four squash clubs, so we have in effect five mini-venues. It makes it quite a big event.
“The tennis and squash club are delighted to have taken us on, because it has added another dimension to the club.
“Alasdair Prott, Greg Lobban and Alan Clyne started their squash careers here. Three of the players representing Scotland are players originating from Inverness.
“I can see a similarity with the table tennis here. We have three really good youngsters ranked with Scotland having come out of nowhere within two years.
“Hopefully table tennis will go the exact same way as squash and we will produce youngsters who go on to play for Scotland.”
Plenty of action every week in city
Amid the crunch Highland League fixtures, Mike explained there’s plenty to play for.
He said: “In between the Highland League games, we play box leagues, as they have in squash for example, where you have four teams in a box league and everyone teams each other every month.
“The top team gets promoted and the bottom one goes down. That is how we will select the teams moving forward.
“Every Friday night, we have a club night at Inverness Leisure Centre. A couple of weeks ago, we had 31 players there. Anything between 20 to 30 is good.
“It’s two hours, the first of which has Stephen Gertsen leading a large coaching session, then the second hour is free play.”