Miss. College garners table tennis championship

by Andy Kanengiser, posted Tuesday, April 14, 2015 (2 years ago)

EDITOR'S NOTE: A story on Mississippi College team captain and coach Cheng Li follows this story.

CLINTON, Miss. (BP) -- Mississippi College's coed table tennis team ended Texas Wesleyan's decade of dominance by capturing MC's first national championship in Wisconsin on Sunday (April 12).

Tong Zhang, a Mississippi College table tennis athlete from China, competes in the April 10-12 National Collegiate Table Tennis Association championships at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Photo by Keith Lam
With games split at two apiece, the fierce match with Texas Wesleyan was decided in doubles play. The MC duo of Cheng Li and Tong Zhang, both from China, overcame a 7-3 deficit to defeat Texas Wesleyan 12-10 to lift the Choctaws to the 2015 championship.

After finishing No. 2 in the nation for three consecutive years, the coed team brought home their trophy Monday (April 13) to the 5,000-student Baptist-affiliated university in Clinton, just west of Jackson. MC is in its eighth season of table tennis competition. The championship's coed category allows for, but does not require, women to be part of a team.

The April 10-12 tournament attracted 250 top collegiate players from the U.S. and Canada to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Li and Zhang also won the men's doubles championship for MC, defeating Texas Wesleyan in the finals.

Other national titles went to Texas Wesleyan for men's singles, University of California at Berkley for women's singles and Princeton for its women's team that included U.S. Olympic stars like Ariel Hsing and Erica Wu. Cal's Lily Zhang, the women's singles champ, played on the U.S. Olympic team.

"This is a huge step for us," said Tyler Brogdon, the lone American on the MC's co-ed squad, with three other players from China. Brogdon, from Birmingham, Ala., has said missions is in his future.

"The whole team worked together," MC assistant coach Zhicheng "Johnson" Liang said. There were many moments when it looked like MC would end up No. 2 once again, but the players never gave up. "We believed in MC," Liang said.

Texas Wesleyan coach Jasna Rather offered her congratulations to the new champs. "This is table tennis history -- they [MC] took us down after 11 years," she said while MC players displayed their trophy and posed for pictures. "It's tough."

Rather said the victory by MC players was "well-deserved." Every game, she said, was "so tense."

It took a team effort by Mississippi College to make it happen. The pressure was on MC's Yi Chi Zhang as he narrowly captured his singles match, three games to two, to force the final round of doubles.

"To say this is a big deal is really an understatement," said Willy Leparulo, president of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. "It is a monumental win by Mississippi College." The MC triumph, he said, "elevates all of college table tennis" after Texas Wesleyan's coed team ruled for so many years.

Former head coach Ken Qiu, a native of China, built the squad from scratch, with the team ending its first season at the 2008 NCTTA championships at No. 14 in the nation. In 2009, the MC women's team finished 4th in the nation. After a couple of consecutive seasons in 5th place, the Choctaws finally reached the No. 2 spot in 2012 at the national championships in Plano, Texas. The team practices for countless hours at Alumni Gym and travels to tournaments around the nation.

To reach the No. 1 spot in the coed team category, MC defeated schools like Penn State and McGill University of Canada. The Choctaws entered the tournament seeded No. 2 over bigger schools like California-Berkeley, Princeton, Southern California, Lindenwood of Missouri, Michigan, McMaster of Canada, Columbia of New York, and UCLA.

Last season, team captain Cheng Li, an MC business major, became the nation's No. 1 men's singles player, but he lost the crown this year to Texas Wesleyan's Zhedi Bai.

The college will host an exhibition at Alumni Gym Wednesday night (April 15) starting at 6 p.m. with New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and three-time Caribbean champion Robert Roberts challenging MC's championship doubles team.

Shortz is a table tennis enthusiast who has played the sport in 48 states, except for Mississippi and Hawaii, and in more than two dozen countries. He's the owner of the Westchester Table Tennis Center in New York and is National Public Radio's puzzlemaster on Sunday mornings.

A reception for the New Yorkers will be at the Leland Speed Library at 5 p.m. on Wednesday. The events are free and open to the public.

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Cheng Li leads

college's table tennis

By Andy Kanengiser

CLINTON, Miss. (BP) -- Cheng Li stepped up his game as leader of Mississippi College's table tennis team this season.

A 22-year-old native of China, the MC business major returned as team captain but also added coaching to his duties.

It's a sport that Li played with passion for years growing up in China.

"Table tennis is a physical and mental game," the 6'3" Li said. With hollow white tennis balls sailing by at nearly 100 mph, the fast-paced Olympic sport isn't for the timid.

"You must be brave at certain moments -- you must," he said.

Li is described as a soft-spoken giant off the court who turns into a competitive tiger once he's got a paddle in hand and games are on the line. When he's not smacking balls at practices at Alumni Gym on the Clinton, Miss., campus or traveling to tournaments around the country, he balances academics with his favorite sport.

A Christian, he enjoys worship services at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton and First Baptist Church in nearby Jackson. Helping shape his spiritual values, his mom and grandmother are both Christians. He's also thankful to his friend, Tim Peabody, then a youth pastor at Morrison Heights, for instilling valuable lessons learned through Bible study.

Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College, its 5,000 students and professors are the right fit for Li. "I like the people, the culture, the Christian background. And the weather is great -- clear skies and fresh air."

What's ahead for Li once his college playing days are over?

"Hopefully, I will be involved in table tennis for the next five to 10 years," he said, "enjoy playing and still be a part of it."

Andy Kanengiser is university news coordinator for Mississippi College and sponsor of the college's table tennis team for all of its eight seasons.
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