Eric Rand wanted to create a junior development tennis program that would be comprehensive, intense and demanding.
He also wanted it to be something else: Fun.
“The good thing is if you look at those kids out there, they’re all having fun and they’re all competing at a high level,” Rand said. “Sometimes they don’t even realize how hard they’re working, but you look at them and they have smiles on their faces and they’re competing.”
It’s been 10 years since Rand and business partner and fellow tennis coach Elliott McDermed started KCUT – or Kansas City United Tennis. In that time KCUT has grown from a program with 40 mostly high-school-aged players to one with more than 200 in many different age levels and divisions.
And the KCUT Academy – a program designed for top-level juniors – has had more than 50 players earn college scholarships while winning numerous Missouri Valley and national tournaments.
That growth became possible when Rand and McDermed bought the Overland Park Racquet Club in 2014. The two started KCUT in 2008 at the five-court Hilltop Racquet Club in south Kansas City and now run the program in a facility with 14 indoor courts, six outdoor courts and four outdoor clay courts.
“Before we’d have a waiting list to get into us, but when we moved over here we were able to change our business model,” Rand said. “We were able to work with all different levels and develop kids from four years old all the way to 18 and adults.”
KCUT’s Academy currently has close to 60 boys and girls, all of whom had to pass a tryout to get in. While most of them are in high school or recent graduates, there is no age limit; players as young as nine have been in the program.
“The Academy isn’t based necessarily on age; it’s based on ability and commitment,” Rand said. “You can have a 10-year-old on the court with a 16 year old and their abilities can be the exact same. It’s a pretty unique environment.”
Playing ability isn’t the only way Rand and KCUT’s staff judge players. They want players who are motivated to succeed, and Rand said most of them are.
“Usually the kids are the ones that are pushing it,” Rand said. “It’s not the parents, it’s usually the kid. And when you put a kid in a challenging environment, and you’re pushing them and it’s all in a good healthy way, they want to be in that.”
Along with on-court instruction from Rand, McDermed and several other veteran coaches, each Academy member gets an individual plan designed for their goals. Coaches will meet with players and their parents three times a year to chart a path for training regimens, tournament schedules and college recruiting.
While most kids come to KCUT hoping to play college tennis, Rand said they don’t all share the same goals. Some may just to be the best on their high-school team. Others aim to be professionals.
“We try to basically accommodate to every kid’s goal that they have,” Rand said. “And we try to tailor the instruction around what the kid’s goals are.”
Sarah Lounsbury’s goal entering KCUT was to someday play college tennis. Lounsbury, a Lee’s Summit resident who was home-schooled in high school, will play next year for Division-I Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.
Lounsbury credits KCUT for getting her there.
“KCUT’s done a lot for me,” Lounsbury said. “It’s opened up so many doors for me and I’ve made so many friendships and the coaches have helped me so much to develop my game.”
Collin Klumb of Leawood came to KCUT when he was 13 and looking for a new academy. Klumb graduated from Rockhurst High last May and is headed to Villanova on a tennis scholarship thanks mainly, he said, to KCUT.
“Eric really helps in the process reaching out to coaches and helping me develop a game style that coaches will be interested in as they’re recruiting me,” said Klumb, a Missouri Class 2 state quarterfinalist last spring. “I give a lot of credit to KCUT.”
Rand tries to maintain a team-like atmosphere at KCUT, even as each player pursues their own goals and tournament schedules. The members all root for each other and often gather for off-the-court activities.
And that togetherness doesn’t end when a player moves on from the program. Academy graduates playing in college can train for free at the club whenever they’re back in town. When a former member plays the final match of their college career, Rand tries to be there.
“It’s such a reward to see the kids finish the process,” Rand said. “But what’s really the reward is seeing who they become once they graduate. Some of these kids have gone on and just accomplish some great things.”
And they can accomplish them by working hard and having fun at the same time.
“I feel like some days I come and I’m not feeling that great, but the coaches get us pumped up,” said Chloe Kuckelman, a Kansas Class 6A state champion along with her twin sister Ellie from Blue Valley North. “We start competing right away and it’s really fun actually.
“At the end I’m glad I went and I feel like it’s productive.”