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Local girls tennis teams get into swing of season

Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Valley High School tennis coach Rachael Link instructs members of the girls tennis team during a practice at the New Kensington high school on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012.

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By Dave Yohe
Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

When her team practiced for the first time this season, three words crossed Rachael Link's mind: “A new legacy.”

“That's become our theme for this season,” the Valley girls tennis coach said. “I embrace that.”

With the loss of standout seniors Courtney Brennan and Emily Robson, Link knows she has big shoes to fill this season.

One of the most decorated and successful players to come out of Valley, Brennan won the Section 4-AA individual title and teamed up with Robson to win section doubles, while also helping the team to third place in the WPIAL team playoffs.

More than anything, Brennan's leadership set her apart. She was like another coach.

That role isn't easy to find, but Link, whose team hosts Kiski Area on Monday in the season opener, has high hopes.

“Maria Pallone has beautifully transitioned into that leadership role,” Link said. “She's a naturally born leader. She leads by example.”

Pallone, who will play No. 1 singles, is the only returning senior to a team full of young potential: juniors Julia Westerman and Megan Hill and sophomores Emily Armstrong, Catherine Armstrong and Hannah Albright.

“There are endless things for me to teach them in a short amount of time,” Link said. “They're picking it up well.”

After spending the past two seasons in Class AA, the Knoch girls team moves back up to Class AAA.

Coach Ken Nieser sees his challenge compounded with the loss of five starters.

His only returning full-timers played No. 2 doubles: juniors Hannah Pfeiffer and Melissa Stearns.

Those two will be joined by the only returning senior, Sarah Kasunic, along with junior Patricia Tivaronas and sophomore Alice Gordon.

With the abundance of underclassmen, Nieser hopes to use this season as an experience-building effort.

“I just had a couple of days with them,” he said. “I think what I'm going to do is move them between singles and doubles.”

Burrell coach Jeri Tutolo's team is reminiscent of her squad two years ago.

“Right now I feel very hopeful,” she said. “I feel like this team may have more talent coming down the road (this year).”

Tutolo's team two years ago was supposed to have a down-year after losing almost every starter. They ended up chasing a Section 4-AA title to the final days of the season.

This year's team found itself in a similar spot, but the amount of talent available brightened Tutolo's outlook.

Jessica Linza and Emily Feroce are the only two returning seniors.

Both have embraced their new roles as leaders, but it is Linza who has stepped up in the offseason.

“Jessica has really helped pick it up. She's been running drills (this summer) and really stepped up,” Tutolo said. “She's a fighter. She's a little thing, but she hits the ball so hard.”

Joining Linza and Feroce in the battle for the top three singles spots is Burrell's basketball standout Jaila Manga.

“I'm thrilled,” Tutolo said. “(Manga) just picked up the game this year. She's an athlete. I have never seen that.”

Tutolo's final four doubles spots are up for grabs, but she sees three players making a strong push for cracking the lineup: juniors Natalie Artman and Zoe Zettner and sophomore Emma Hough.

“They're picking up their game,” Tutolo said. “Even the one who haven't played before are picking it up well.”

Dave Yohe is a freelance writer.

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