Norwin's Maria Santilli takes 1st step toward WPIAL, PIAA title defenses
Appearing calm and relaxed, Maria Santilli still struggled to contain her excitement Tuesday after her straight-sets victory to win the WPIAL Section 1-AAA girls tennis championship at Franklin Regional.
The Norwin senior and Cincinnati recruit is on a similar path as a year ago, when she claimed WPIAL and PIAA titles.
“I would say I have a little more excitement for this because I'm getting towards the end (of her high school playing days),” said Santilli, the section's top-seeded player, after defeating third-seeded Latrobe freshman Addison Kemerer, 6-0, 6-0. “I'm just trying to enjoy my last couple tournaments.”
Santilli extended a winning streak of 27 matches without losing a set, dating to Sept. 21, 2015, when she dropped a 10-7 decision to Upper St. Clair's Charlotte Madson in a WPIAL quarterfinal.
On Tuesday, she dispatched Kemerer with the help of 11 aces.
“That's more aces than I've had in any other section tournament,” Santilli said.
In the consolation match, fourth-seeded freshman Hannah Yan, from Franklin Regional, upset second-seeded senior Abby Herman, from Gateway, 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5.
All four players advance to the WPIAL Class AAA tournament Thursday and Friday at North Allegheny.
Santilli kept her composure during the match and afterward, as well, citing a need to stay humble and respect the abilities of any opponent.
“I feel like I can stay humble by just saying anything can happen on any given day,” she said. “I can't let my guard down because at any given moment, they can come back. I just try to focus on the factors that I can control and how I'm playing. I try not to focus on what they are doing. I've had that happen to me before.”
Norwin coach Ryan Hornick stood wide-eyed as Santilli methodically advanced to the next step on her way to another possible title.
“You never know if this type of situation will come by again,” he said.
“You have these little kids that are around the Norwin area who are seeing she won a state championship and committed to Cincinnati. As a coach, you're looking for two or three kids within their age range to go that route, and then, all of a sudden, it just starts breeding competition and everything kind of improves with the program.”
It was much that way when Santilli was a little girl. She said she kept an eye peeled toward former Plum standout Ronit Yurovsky, who went on to play at Michigan before joining the WTA Tour.
“She won states and she went to college. I like that she got her college degree,” Santilli said. “When she's not on the pro tour, she comes home and I'm able to work out with her sometimes. She's been one of my idols since I've been really little. She has a good work process, and she's always calm.”
Perhaps that's the influence that stuck the most with Santilli, who trains at Iron City Elite in the South Hills.
While Yurovsky has continued to build on her tennis career, Santilli has shown little concern so far about the future beyond her college years.
After all, she's not even finished at Norwin.
“I don't think she's peaked,” Hornick said. “The biggest change I've seen in her is in some areas of skill. Like her serving definitely has gotten stronger, she's covering the court better and the confidence in her shot placement is more noticeable. It's not like a drastic improvement, but when you're at her level, little things matter a lot.”
Santilli indeed is aware there have been others from WPIAL schools who've made it to tennis' professional ranks, but she's not counting on being one of them just yet.
“I don't really think I'm ever going to go pro,” Santilli said. “My dream job is to be a business person and work during the weekdays, and then play tennis on the weekends. We'll see if that happens.”
Dave Mackall is a freelance writer.