Franklin Regional, Norwin, Penn-Trafford girls tennis preview
As another season of girls tennis begins in Section 1-AAA, the common thread between Franklin Regional, Norwin and Penn-Trafford is a goal of improvement.
Penn-Trafford was the only one of those teams last year to make the playoffs, a place that both the Panthers and Knights aspire to reach. To do so, they will have to pass Hempfield and Latrobe - last year's 1-2 combination in the section - as well as battle Connellsville, Kiski Area and section newcomer Greensburg Salem.
All three teams will get a boost from the return of their No. 1 singles player from last year, but to make a push for the section title, the points from the bottom of the lineup could prove to be the deciding factor.
Below is a look at each team entering the season:
The Panthers come into the season not only with their No. 1 singles player - senior Lauren Bailey - but also with a pair of freshmen who could play a major role in the team's success.
Bailey's younger sister, Jenna, could land a starting position according to head coach Howard Fisher, while another ninth-grader, Natalia Perry, will be pressing the elder Bailey near the top of the lineup.
"Natalia is a very strong player. She comes in with a (USTA) Middle States ranking in the 20s (for ages 16-and-under)," Fisher said. "Jenna looks very promising with a strong game, but I'm not sure where she'll fit in to our lineup."
The team also has experience provided by senior Grayce Behnke and junior Victoria Zhang, both of whom saw varsity action last year. Sana Chughtai also provides senior leadership for the Panthers, while Fisher has a very deep junior class from which the rest of the lineup likely will come.
"At this point, it's tough to mention anyone else without naming everybody," Fisher said. "We're going to be having a lot of challenge matches this week because we don't really know who will emerge from this group."
While the crowded roster means Fisher will have to make some tough decisions, it also means the Panthers are well-equipped for this year and beyond.
"It does make for a difficult decision, but it's one that any coach would love to have," Fisher said. "All the girls are going to have to work hard, and while there will be disappointment for those that don't make varsity, they're all going to make a difference for this team in the years to come.
"Even (Lauren Bailey and Perry), they will be able to push each other. Other teams may not be able to challenge their top players in practice, but they're going to make each other better."
The Panthers open section play on the road Friday with a match against Norwin at 3:30 p.m.
Norwin struggled to pick up team wins last season, but the good news for the Knights is that a large part of last year's lineup is back and now a year older and more experienced.
At the top of the lineup are juniors Courtney O'Connell and Alexa Holleran, the same 1-2 combination that topped the Knights lineup and competed at section singles last year.
Behind those two are senior Allie Green, junior Jaimie Barca and sophomore Carson Snyder, all of whom are battling for the third singles spot this year.
"Carson had the most experience at that spot, but all of them have played there," Norwin coach Ryan Hornick said. "It would be nice to get someone settled in there, but they will all have their chance."
Working into the doubles spots in the lineup will be seniors Madi Guffey, Lacie Werner and Margaret Kennedy; juniors Emily Anderson, Molly Page and Chloe Chiado; and freshman Mary Hankowycz.
While Hornick will be trying to put out the best team possible, he also wants all the members of his sizable underclass group to gain varsity experience this year.
"We want to get all of them experience by the end of the year," Hornick said. "I think we saw it near the end of the year last year, that some of the girls are emerging as leaders, and they're getting more of a competitive edge to them."
While developing the individual players is a goal for Norwin, there are goals to be reached this season, as well.
"This is a pretty solid team from top to bottom," Hornick said. "I think we can challenge for the playoffs, and it would be nice to see some girls go farther in the individual tournaments, as well."
Norwin's section opener is its home match Friday against Franklin Regional.
The one Star-area team to reach last year's WPIAL playoffs, Penn-Trafford's bid to return there starts with sophomore Charlotte Vertes, who was last year's section singles runner-up as a freshman.
Behind her in the singles positions will be senior Alexis Ryan, another returning starter, and sophomore Rachel Ford, a newcomer to the P-T lineup.
In head coach Linda Michaux's still-to-be-finalized doubles pairings, senior Sarah Rupchak is the only other returning starter from last year's playoffs. Also in the mix for varsity spots are seniors Christina Mediate, Hannah Phillips and Kaleen Rupchak; juniors Dana Kelly and Melanie Loughner; and sophomore Elaine Haas.
"The lineup could change. We will miss Nicole Paul, who graduated and was our No. 2 player, but will be great having Charlotte return in the No. 1 position," Michaux said.
Michaux hesitated to offer any thoughts about where her team will fit into the section's pecking order. With Hempfield graduating all three of its singles players and Latrobe graduating reigning section singles champ Stacia Kissell, the Section 1-AAA race could be wide open.
"Our goal is to get back into the WPIAL team tournament," Michaux said. "I cannot tell you who the best teams are until we get to play everyone the first time.
Penn-Trafford opens section play on the road at 4:15 p.m. Thursday, when it travels to Kiski Area.
The team was scheduled to face Gateway and Peters Township in nonsection matches earlier in the week.