Harlandale Middle School student ranked among nation’s best in table tennis

Lia Morales crouched down with her paddle ready for a match with Jenson Van Emburgh at the San Antonio Table Tennis Club on the northeast side.

The 11-year-old girl, her eyes fixed on the small white ball, stood with her feet apart in an attacking position.

The blows in both directions were relentless. Lia’s parents Frank and Jeanette Morales watched from a side bench as she kicked the ball inches from the net over and over again without missing a beat.

After playing the sport for only 20 months, Lia is ranked 13th in the United States in the category of girls aged 12 and under. She competed in tournaments in Florida, Ohio and the U.S. Championships in Las Vegas on July 4.

Every day after school, Lia faces off against older and more experienced table tennis players in her quest to become the best of the best.

From setbacks to forehands, she matched the meteoric returns of Van Emburgh, 21, who won a bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. A rare miss brought a slight grimace from Lia, but she pushed it away and resumed her ready position.

His coach, Vlad Farcas, 21, kept an eye on the game. Farcas, originally from Romania, also trains Van Emburgh. In a hushed tone, he gave advice on how to press harder to Lia, a sixth-grader at Harlandale Middle School.

Unlike many young people, Farcas said, Lia has the rare ability to focus for hours on end.

“For her it’s pretty easy because she really enjoys it,” Farcas said. “She can play all day. If it were up to her, she would be there 24/7.

Lia’s games have won at the club against the older guys who see her as a little sister except when they play her at the table.

“I like the speed of the game and how difficult it is,” Lia said between games. “I’m just trying to take what everyone else teaches me and never give up.”

She is currently preparing for a junior tournament in Indiana and her possible first cash prize.

Lia trains for three hours, five days a week, at the Lookout Run gym, which she considers a home from home. Farcas said the gymnasium, a non-profit organization, helps people of all skill levels, including children, adults, the elderly and disabled veterans.

Growing up, Lia tried her hand at other activities. The youngest of four children, she excels at T-Ball, softball, soccer, cheerleaders and competitive dance. Ballet was her goal until she met table tennis.

Lia fell in love with the sport when she first saw a table while visiting the mission branch library with her father. Oscar Gonzalez, branch manager and Lia’s first trainer, taught her the basics at the South Side Library near Mission San Jose.

After three weeks, Gonzalez told Frank Morales his daughter could be natural. Gonzalez suggested the youngster go to the San Antonio Table Tennis Club for further development.

After a lesson, Farcas asked Morales if he could bring Lia to the club every day.

“She just picked it up so quickly,” said Frank Morales, a 1994 graduate of Harlandale High School. “That’s what she fell in love with. This is his life. Win or lose, she’s tough on herself. She wants to improve.

At home, Lia watches YouTube videos that send the sound of balls hitting tables all over the house.

Her parents said the most important thing they wanted for their daughter was to have fun and be happy. They said she maintained her average A grades while progressing in the sport.

“She’s a real blessing,” said Jeanette Morales, 47.

During a training break last week, Lia sipped lemonade from an orange and white striped mug in an aisle surrounded by several tables where ricocheting white orbs looked like hail bombarding the rooftops of a rain storm.

“Good job, kid,” Frank Morales said as she joined him and his wife.

“Our job is to congratulate her anyway,” he said. “We are proud of her.

Towards the end of training, Lia played Kobe Couyoumjian, 20, who travels from Orange City, Calif., To support his friend Farcas, the players and the club.

The ball was blurry between the two players. She returned almost every ball the big player threw over the table with an inverted pendulum serve.

“This game is about serving and receiving,” Coyoumijian told Lia and the young players. “If you can reduce that, that’s the most important. “

Lia is grateful for the sacrifice of her parents and for driving 20 miles from the south side to the northeast side every week. She is grateful to her coach and everyone at the gym for the advice she applies to every game. And she plans to carry the lessons from her parents and the club with her in the future.

“I want to be on the United States national team,” said Lia. “And I hope one day will bring home an Olympic Games medal.”

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