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Bringing tennis, and a sport for them, to Camdens girls

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Cass-White was recruited by her Camden longtime boyfriend, Orlando Council-Pettigrew, to help him teach tennis to girls in town. He quit his job as a postman two years ago and recently decided that after three decades of coaching the Simbas football team, he was ready to leave that labor of love too.

There was nothing to worry about, he said, but at age 57 it was time to get out of the way.

Council-Pettigrew, an accomplished tennis player in his youth, was inspired by a lifelong love of the sport and a little girl named Icebox.

Orlando Council-Pettigrew helps girls play tennis in Camden on August 16, 2021
Orlando Council-Pettigrew helps girls play tennis in Camden on August 16, 2021. (April Saul for WHYY)

In 2016, nearly 50 years after Simbas’ founding, Council-Pettigrew had the opportunity to coach Janiyah Hill, a 7-year-old combination running back and quarterback and the first girl to play on the 75-pound squad. She was nicknamed Icebox, after a character from the movie Little Giants. Council-Pettigrew had coached her father and was also friends with her grandfather.

At the time, Council-Pettigrew said working with Janiyah got him excited about coaching again. That experience, he said, led him to make this summer program exclusively for girls, though he hopes it will also become college-style in the future.

In our city, he said, we literally don’t get any money for girls’ programs. We have basketball, football, but we haven’t seen anything strictly for little girls, sporty.

At a Simbas game in September 2016, Orlando Council coach-Pettigrew Janiyah (
During a Simbas game in September 2016, Orlando Council coach-Pettigrew Janiyah (“Icebox”) introduces Hill to the umpires. (April Saul for WHYY)

No one can remember exactly when Camden High and Woodrow Wilson high school tennis teams disappeared, but it was probably at least five years ago.

Council-Pettigrew isn’t alone in trying to bring tennis back to town. dr. Jack OByrne, executive director of the Camden County Historical Society, and Bridget Phifer, executive director of the Parkside Business & Community in Partnership (PBCIP), have raised money to rebuild the five dilapidated tennis courts between the Historical Society building and the Camden High football field. Park Avenue with hopes of bringing tennis back to Camden High in the spring of 2023.

OByrne said $50,000 of the $147,000 needed has so far been raised through grants, and Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen and school board chairman Wasim Muhammad have pledged to try with the rest. to assist. OByrne said his part of the community partnership with the school system is to improve the baseball and softball fields as well as the tennis courts that are not eligible for funding from the state school development authority because they are not adjacent to the actual Camden High complex.

While that brand-new building has gotten a lot of attention, Phifer said, the kids also need to have better recreational opportunities to feel good about where they are, whether it’s a baseball or softball field or a tennis court.

Estelle Cookie Sey coached tennis at Camden High in the early 1980s, and, Council-Pettigrew said, taught me everything I know about tennis.

Kelly Cass-White tips Jeyla Long, 7, in Camden on August 26, 2021
Kelly Cass-White tips Jeyla Long, 7, in Camden on August 26, 2021. (April Saul for WHYY)

Sey was frustrated by the mismatches in funding between her program and high-profile sports. The then athletic director of the school, she said, never really gave me decent equipment, boys basketball and football players would even get sneakers!

She stopped, she said, when I got tired of arguing that we needed Prince tennis rackets. We played Cherry Hill. The suburban schools had better equipment.

Wes Fuller, who won accolades for both tennis and basketball at Camden High, played with basketball legends such as Milt Wagner before graduating in 1983, said he spent 12 hours perfecting his tennis game on the Dudley Grange courts in East Camden as a youth.

Fuller recalled being the only Camden player to ever beat a Cherry Hill tennis team member. Both Cherry Hill high schools still have competitive tennis programs, as well as many more girls’ sports opportunities than Camden schools, such as volleyball, hockey, and soccer.

He now lives in Georgia, where he coaches teens to earn tennis college scholarships and recently had a former student compete in the US Open. Fuller believes tennis sharpens different skills than other sports.

Tennis is what’s needed in Camden, Fuller said, because it teaches kids discipline, is self-sufficient and believes in itself. There are no teammates, and in real life, if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, there isn’t always a team. Our children need confidence to achieve things and make wise decisions.

Melani Thompson, 10, learns to play tennis in Camden on August 26, 2021
Melani Thompson (10) will learn to play tennis in Camden on August 26, 2021. (April Saul for WHYY)

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