Whether it's a tennis ball, a racquetball or a baseball, Jason Colangelo can hit it with power.

But this 16-year-old likes a fast game. While he still dabbles in tennis and baseball, Colangelo spends more and more time on the racquetball courts.

The practice time pays off. Last year, Colangelo did well enough in American Amateur Racquetball Association-sanctioned tournaments tobe ranked first in the state in the men's novice division. He was also ranked No. 2 in the boys 14-and-under division.

Not bad for someone in his first year of competition, other racquetball players say.

"I was impressed with how hard he hits the ball and how hard he works," said Dave Frey, a former men's open player. "Jason has the potential to be one of the best players in the state if he's willing to work. He needs a little more consistency, but that comes with playing."

Colangelo didn't take up racquetball until his family joined the Bel Air Athletic Club three years ago. Since he was 5 years old, Colangelo had played plenty of recreational sports, including base ball, soccer, basketball and tennis. But racquetball offered just the right combination of speed, strategy and individual effort for him.

"Most people who switch from tennis to racquetball think it's al

most the same sport, but it's not," he said. "People come in and think they can hit with topspin, but there's no topspin. You don't have that fur stuff like on a tennis ball, so you just have to hit it hard and place it."

"I like it too because it's a one-on-one sport," saidColangelo, who will be a junior at C. Milton Wright High in the fall. "In baseball, you can't single out one person. Even if somebody's really good, you still need the whole team. In racquetball, you can single out one person and say that person is really good."

Even though Colangelo has rapidly improved, he is still a couple of steps behind the state's top young players. Many of them started playing the game at 7 or 8 years old.

Frey said young racquetball players usually face two major stumbling blocks in their careers -- finding opponents their own age and finding good coaches to help them improve. "Whenkids don't have peers to play, they have to play older people," saidFrey, adding that Colangelo will need three or four more years to reach his potential. "You have to go out and play adults to learn the game, and you have to understand that losing helps you get better."

Colangelo lost his first tournament, in December 1989, but he was hooked anyway.

"The first guy I played was 6-foot-8," Colangelo said. "He was a monster. I lost, 15-14, 15-14. I figured since I lost that close one and I practiced more, I could do pretty well."

In his next tournament, Colangelo, then 14, won the men's novice division. He won his next three tournaments.

Since then, Colangelo has lost his share of tournaments, but losing isn't as difficult as being without a coach. Without someone to watch over his development on a regular basis, he is left to make his own decisions. He doesn't always makethe right choice.

"I need somebody to be there at tournaments to tell me what I'm doing wrong," said Colangelo, who is sponsored by Head rackets and sportswear. "My friends at tournaments tell me what todo, but I practice basically on my own. I learn from watching."

Now that Colangelo is devoted to racquetball, he doesn't have time formuch else. During the school year, he played volleyball and baseballfor the Mustangs but still managed to fit in about 15 hours of practice a week. He spent most weekends at tournaments.

Summer is the off season, but Colangelo still gets in at least six hours of practiceon the courts weekly. He also gives lessons two nights a week at theBel Air Athletic Club as well as on weekends at a club outside Atlantic City, where his parents have a summer home.

In the fall, he hopes to make even bigger strides in tournaments. He also would like toimprove enough to earn a scholarship at one of the handful of schools offering them.

"I have all the skills," he said. "Right now, it's all in my head. I've got to learn more strategy and special shots and special serves in order to win more games. When I have that, I'll gradually move up the ladder."

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