Where Are They Now? Wilson Club Series #1
(By Steve Hopkins, Photo shows Brian Pace, Oscar Melvin, and Derek May at Butterfly Dojo)
Article 1: The Perfect Storm: Butterfly, Bowie, Bowie, Ty, and Brian
For a period from 1985-1992, Wilson, North Carolina became a model for developmental, grass-roots table tennis. With Butterfly’s North American distributor (Martin Kilpatrick – now Bowmar Sports) located in Wilson, there is a long history of expertise and resources in the sport there. But 1985 was the perfect storm of timing and effort and energy and people centered around the small community in North Carolina with a population of less than 50,000.
Bowie Martin, Jr. returned to Wilson after college where he continued his work with his father, USATT Hall of Famer Bowie Martin, Sr., in their family business of table tennis supply. Then, like now, the dominant supplier was Butterfly and they had a warehouse full of Butterfly equipment and employees and clients and friends who were table tennis enthusiasts. Bowie Martin, Jr. was eager to expand the sport and together with Ty Hoff, who moved to Wilson in the Fall of that year, the two began doing exhibitions at schools and recreational centers, providing balls and equipment to schools, and inviting kids to play at the table they had set up at the warehouse.
Bowie Martin, Sr. had been able to secure a grant from the USATT for grassroots development. With Martin Kilpatrick Company supplying the equipment and space, and USATT providing some additional funding to assist Ty and Bowie Jr., the program expanded quickly. The club in the warehouse soon had four tables (and then eight a year later with an expansion). Ty found himself working pretty full days, with demonstrations during the day mixed with volunteer teaching in PE classes and then visiting rec centers in the afternoons and inviting anyone and everyone to the club after school.
As Brian Pace (one of Wilson’s most notable alumni) describes it, one afternoon he walked into the Reid Street Community Center in Wilson and there was Ty. He was invited to play and from the moment the paddle was placed in his hand he was hooked. The program and all of its components (Bowie Sr. , Bowie Jr., Ty, and Butterfly) all had a major influence on him as a kid, and a major influence on his development into adulthood, as well as his trajectory to a professional coach. When Ty Hoff was asked how someone could repeat the success, he described it as a perfect storm – with it being the perfect time for institutional support from Butterfly and USATT, and a time when they were able to call upon the contacts and experience of Bowie Martin, Sr., and the right time for leadership and hard work from Bowie Martin, Jr. and Ty Hoff, and also the right time to find great athletes with real potential at the right age and with the right commitment to become great players.
By the Fall of 1986, there were monthly tournaments and a quickly developing group of young players including Brian Pace, Eddie Farmer, Howard Phillips, Oscar Melvin, and Greg Daniels to name a few). Bowie Martin, Jr. had a van and committed to driving the young players to tournaments – and it was no small commitment as the group attended over 40 tournaments in 1987. In 1987 when the grant was renewed, they brought in James Theriault as a coach as well. The juniors developed, and so did Bowie and Ty. At the AAU Junior Olympic Games in 1987, Wilson players Greg Daniels and Brian Pace finished first and second in U-16 Singles. A year later at the 1988 Junior Olympics, the Wilson Juniors including Brian Pace, Oscar Melvin, and Jignesh Mehta lead Team North Carolina to first place and doubles teams from Wilson finished as runner-up in both the U-18 Doubles and U-14 Doubles events.
The program was a magnet for great players and organizers. Murray Ajala and other Nigerian players came to train and coach. Dexter St. Louis, Eric Owens, Randy Cowen, Carl Schultz, Larry Hodges, Eric Boggan, Sean O’Neill, Joe Eng and many others made appearances at the club and the collective synergy of the region helped everyone improve. The program was also a launching pad locally. Two of the original players, Brian Pace and Oscar Melvin were accepted to the Resident Training Program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs which was intended to develop potential Olympic-track athletes. These two also were invited to train at the Butterfly Dojo in Japan. Ty Hoff went on to coach and play at Augusta College in Georgia – and then took on a role at the Resident Training Program.
The program eventually ended. The grant funding decreased after the 1988 Olympics and the success of the program contributed to its downfall as well. Ty Hoff had left to another table tennis job. The initial young group of players had begun to graduate and move and the best of those young players had been away at other table tennis programs and were now preparing to go off to college programs. And the pace of competing in tournaments almost every weekend had begun to wear on everyone involved.
By 1992, it was time to pass the torch of local North Carolina table tennis to other clubs and events. Butterfly continued to sponsor and support tournaments in the region, but the Wilson club and juniors program slowed. The region has continued to attract great players and events like the Cary Cup and a premier club like Triangle Table Tennis have become the successors to the program that was built in Wilson in the late 80s. For a time, this small North Carolina town hosted a unique and effective grass-roots table tennis program that became one of the centers of the sport for almost a decade.