Boys tennis team takes first step in improving on tough ‘16 outing
The bad news about the season Clarence’s boys tennis team endured last spring is that it didn’t live up to the Red Devils’ perennially lofty standards on multiple fronts.
The good news is that going through a rough-and-tumble outing that led to a 7-8 overall record and fourth-place finish in the ECIC I standings served as a learning experience for the returning members of the squad. And with 20 of the potential 22 players back for another crack at it, coach Alex Chambers envisions improvement across multiple fronts in 2017.
“I have quite a few kids who would probably like to be starting this season — I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a higher number of talented underclassmen than I do this year; but my five seniors are sort of blocking them from the starting lineup,” Chambers said. “Those younger kids are going to give us a tremendous amount of depth to where I expect to win 80 percent or more of our exhibition matches this season.”
Clarence was able to showcase that depth in its season-opening 3-2 victory at Lancaster on April 5. The Red Devils won all five of their completed exhibition matches — a sixth was left unfinished — but, more importantly, swept the doubles portion of the actual match and stole a three-set marathon at second singles to secure the win.
Senior three-year starter Devan Deck was Clarence’s lone victor in singles play, taking the point in what Chambers called “what I would consider the signature win of his Clarence tennis career” by knocking off his opponent by 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 scores. Deck rallied from a 0-3 deficit in the first set to make things competitive, and used patience in the second and third sets to secure the win.
“Devan’s shot selection and consistency has improved since last season,” Chambers said. “He can hit with anybody but needs to avoid playing down to the level of lesser opponents who are just trying to keep the ball on the court and outlast him. He is a definite team leader and will be instrumental to our chances of knocking off some of the tougher teams.”
Fellow seniors Nick Wright and Greg Catalano, both of whom are returning starters, picked up a crucial point at first doubles via their 6-0, 7-6 (7-5) victory. Wright, who will also see some time at third singles this year, “is a team leader who has made major improvements throughout his high school tennis career,” Chambers said, while Catalano, who also started at first doubles last year, “is one of the most talented kids I have ever been around.”
“Nick’s serve has become a real weapon now; his net game is very solid and his ground strokes have improved,” Chambers said. “Greg is a tremendous athlete who is big, quick, has a great reach and is intimidating at the net. First doubles is a key position in high school tennis, and Greg has held down that spot for a couple of years now.”
Clarence’s final point came from the second doubles tandem of returning starter Stephen Recktenwald and returning sophomore River Reinhardt, who beat their opponents by 6-1, 6-2 scores.
“Stephen is another tremendous athlete who allows his athleticism to serve as a strength on the tennis court,” Chambers said. “He has good strokes, but he is also very active, trying different formations, playing a strong net game, getting his serves in, making the other team really work for it. At second doubles, it’s usually the team that keeps the ball on the court, and Stephen is adept at applying pressure and forcing errors from his opponents. And River is a great athlete; he played a lot of exhibition doubles last year and looks ready to move up to varsity play.”
Clarence’s other starters against Lancaster were senior returning first singles starter Ryan Sauer and sophomore Alex Hu at third singles. Though they weren’t able to come out on top against the Legends, Chambers has nothing but praise for, and confidence in, both players.
“What makes Ryan stand out is his all-court game; he spent his sophomore season on first doubles and was a division all-star at that spot, and since then, his net game has improved even more,” Chambers said. “He had a big challenge last year facing some of the best players in Western New York at first singles in ECIC I and our non-league matches, and he competed very hard. He makes his opponents work for every point and has earned the respect of other coaches in the league.
“And Alex is a very solid player with good fundamentals and I expect big things from him before he graduates,” Chambers continued. “He should be our first singles player starting next season, as long as he continues to play regularly and make improvements to his game. To really succeed in singles, Alex is going to have to be aggressive and learn to dictate points, construct points, take advantage of opportunities to approach the net and be offensive. He has great ground strokes but needs to learn to push his opponents around a little bit.”
Other players on Clarence’s roster who are looking to help push the Red Devils to success this spring include seniors Jacob Little and Ryan Kelly, junior Jacob Meli, and sophomores and freshmen Gehrig Lahti, James Nazzaro, Ross Showalter, Sammy Zyla, Gianni Fasanello, J.D. King, Mike Dixon and Steven Gawron.
“Our depth should be as good as anyone’s this year,” Chambers said. “Jacob Meli is a great kid with good shots who has really improved; he’s right on the cusp of starting for us and, like many of these kids, he’s going to have a major opportunity next season with all of the seniors who will be graduating off this year’s team. Jacob Little and Ryan have teamed up as a really formidable doubles tandem who may work their way into the starting lineup for some matches, while Gehrig, James, Ross, Sammy, Gianni, J.D., Mike and Steven have all improved greatly since last season. It’s going to be really interesting to see who makes the leap to start next season, a leap that starts now with their performance in practice and exhibition matches, and then their work between seasons.”
Clarence returned to action Tuesday against Sweet Home, but information about that contest was not available at press time. The Red Devils close out their week — weather permitting — by facing West Seneca this afternoon and Frontier on Friday. Even if the matches do take place as scheduled, Chambers and his players know they’ll be playing a bunch of matches in a short amount of time — so every match and every practice will take on added importance in the Red Devils’ quest to improve on last year’s efforts.
“We’re willing to try anything against the powerhouse teams like Orchard Park and Williamsville North, things like unusual doubles formations, junk balls and off-speed stuff,” Chambers said. “OP is the gold standard until somebody proves otherwise, but hopefully the added experience that we have this year will translate into us winning some tight matches.”