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Summer 2008 Vol. 15. No. 4 Focus on Following the Money

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A hidden athletic dynasty

The racquets and the crowds are small, but this team from Northeast is smashing its way to another dominating season.

By by Benjamin Herold on May 22, 2008 12:00 AM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Coach Karen Barrett and doubles ace Karen Barrett, mother and daughter, talk badminton.

It’s been almost ten years since Northeast High School’s powerhouse baseball team brought home its last Public League Championship in 1999.

The Vikings football team has won 11 Public League titles overall, but none since 1983.

And the basketball team? No city trophies since 1929.

But far from the big display case in the school’s main entrance, neatly hanging on a wall in the physical education office, are six framed certificates honoring Northeast High’s most successful athletic team of this century: girls’ badminton.

That’s right, badminton.

“Other students joke that it’s not even a real sport,” says Ina Jancaj, a diminutive senior and half of the city’s most feared doubles team. “But it’s taken a little team like girls’ badminton to bring all these championships to Northeast.”


The Lady Vikings’ championship run began in 1998 and was quickly followed by titles in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2007. Over the last eleven years, the Lady Vikings have dominated the Public League, racking up a gaudy 122-5 regular season record. Entering this year’s playoffs, the team was 11-0 and poised to make a run at their fourth straight championship.

The School District of Philadelphia, whose badminton tradition dates back to high school club teams in the 1930’s, formed Pennsylvania’s first formal league in 1975. With 25 teams across the city and over 200 girls participating each year, Philadelphia’s remains the only badminton league in the state, even though it is an Olympic sport.

“This is not backyard badminton,” declares Karen Barrett, who has coached at Northeast since 1996 and taught Health and Physical Education at the school for 23 years. “You need to be competitive.

You need to be able to think quickly, and you have to master different types of hits. Most of all, you need to be able to move.”

Ninety minutes before Northeast’s April 29 match, before the bus has even arrived to take her team to Frankford High School, Coach Barrett is already moving at game speed, giving pointers, asking about prom dates, and jokingly making sure that the reporter covering the game isn’t picking up tips to pass on to their opponent.

None of the six seniors on the squad is better equipped to help new players get used to their coach’s demanding ways than the team’s star, who happens to be Coach Barrett’s oldest daughter.

Karen Barrett the younger has been on the badminton team for four years. She learned the game in middle school, when she came to Northeast High to meet her mom after school and played with the rackets and birdies after matches were over.

Coach Barrett insists that her instruction is confined to games and practices. Told this, the younger Barrett just smiles.

Her mother never pressured her to play, she laughs, but with the playoffs about to begin, her father has wearily resigned himself to a steady stream of badminton talk at the dinner table.

The family dynamic among the Lady Vikings extends throughout the fourteen-member team, which includes girls from China, Vietnam, Colombia, Albania, and Russia, as well as twin sisters from India.

Xiaoying Li, who was born in China and started playing badminton when she was eight, is the team’s number one singles player. Northeast’s top-ranked doubles team includes Barrett, the only African American on the team, and Jancaj, who came to the U.S. from Albania nine years ago.

“There are some challenges” in coaching such a diverse group, allows Coach Barrett. “But all my girls know that when they are selected to be a part of this team, they become not just my player, but my daughter. After going through the Barrett boot camp, everyone becomes part of the big badminton family.”


Photo: Harvey Finkle
Top singles player Xiaoying Li is looking toward a fourth consecutive Public League badminton title for Northeast this spring.

Top singles player Xiaoying Li is looking toward a fourth consecutive Public League badminton title for Northeast this spring.

In Frankford’s gymnasium, which has been partitioned for the afternoon so the boys’ volleyball team can practice while the girls have their badminton match, two things quickly become apparent: the sport hasn’t quite caught on with spectators, and the girls from Northeast don’t need a big crowd to play some serious badminton.

Public League badminton matches consist of two doubles games and three singles games. Each game is best-of-three sets, with the first team to reach eleven points in singles or fifteen in doubles winning a set. Only the side that is serving can score points.

During the afternoon’s first games, between the schools’ third singles and second doubles teams, there are five fans in attendance, including two Frankford school nurses who came out to support their student aides.

A few more students trickle in by the time Barrett and Jancaj line up to take on Frankford’s first doubles team. The small crowd doesn’t have much time to enjoy the dominating display put on by the duo, whose 15-1, 15-0 straight sets win takes about 15 minutes.

Barrett and Jancaj, who barely break a sweat, leave their opponents out of breath from chasing delicate drop shots and shell-shocked from having to avoid powerful smashes.

It might not be until the all-Public League Tournament, in which the city’s best players compete head-to-head for all-Public recognition, that Barrett and Jancaj face a stiff challenge. Even then, they might not be pushed to bring out their best game; last year, they won all eleven of their games – while forgoing all of their breaks to make sure Barrett would have time to get her hair done before her Junior Prom that night.


On the other end of the gym, however, the type of high-energy, back-and-forth badminton that Coach Barrett loves is starting to unfold in the climactic first singles match between Northeast’s Li and Frankford’s Stephanie Williams.

After Li loses the first game 11-2, the second game is much more intense. Girls from both teams gather around to watch, and both coaches live and die with each point scored. Li rallies to even the game at a set apiece with an 11-7 win.

Before the decisive third set, Coach Barrett takes Li for a walk to the water cooler, offering instructions and encouragement.

Girls from both teams tuck away their cell phones, text messages temporarily delayed.

Li jumps out to an early lead. Both girls skillfully mix high-arcing “clear” shots that push each other to the backline with deft drop shots that have each other lunging towards the net.

Li goes up 8-3 with a killer smash that brings Coach Barrett out of her seat with a barely stifled “That’s what I’m talking about!”

Minutes later, after an eleven-shot rally that has both girls running all over the court, she finishes Williams off.


As quickly as that, the match is over, the cell phones are unholstered, and the Lady Vikings pack up for the bus ride home. Despite the intensity, Public League badminton is a no-frills affair.

Northeast is heavily favored to win their fifth straight title. After that, however, the team’s seniors aren’t sure if they will have the opportunity to play competitive badminton again.

Li and Jancaj are headed to Penn State-Abington. Barrett plans to attend the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, where she will pursue her other sporting passion: bowling.

None seem more than mildly disappointed that even at the collegiate level, badminton struggles for recognition.

For them, a dynasty is still a dynasty, even if few are there to witness it.

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Submitted by Pawel (not verified) on September 5, 2013 11:48 pm
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Submitted by Mia (not verified) on June 12, 2015 7:18 pm

Badminton is my favourite game! The main problem here in Philadelphia is a small amount of badminton courts. I moved to Philly almost 3 months ago. I don`t study at school or university, their courts are closed to me. I have tried to find some courts in another places for last months , but unsuccessfully. Maybe you know at least one court in the center? Check it, maybe I`m wrong and I could play in a HS`s or University`s court

Submitted by jenFan (not verified) on July 14, 2015 1:44 pm

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