Youthful Mars tennis team grows up in a hurry

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Mars began the tennis season with a young team.

With four freshmen, two sophomores and a junior in the top seven, the Planets weren't sure what to expect in terms of the growing pains that accompany any season.

By the time the year wrapped up, the team looked like a bunch of veteran players.

A successful postseason run helped accelerate the team's growth. Mars finished as the runner-up in the WPIAL Class AA team tournament. Meanwhile, top singles players Josh Raymundo and Aaron Gruber teamed up to finish second in the WPIAL Class AA doubles tournament.

The Planets nearly had their playoff run stopped before the postseason began. The team needed a last-day win over Quaker Valley to earn a playoff spot. Mars prevailed and earned the Section 3 No. 2 seed with an 8-4 mark.

“It came down to the last section match,” Mars coach Chris Knauff said. “We pulled out that win, 3-2, in a really tight match. It was very exciting. Over the past 10 to 15 years, our section has had a lot of the top teams with Quaker Valley, Sewickley Academy (which has won the WPIAL 10 years in a row), Vincentian, Winchester Thurston and, until this year, Hampton.

“We haven't been making the playoffs a lot, but we have had decent teams. At the beginning of the season, I talked to our guys and told them this section is the best section to play in to prepare yourself because you'll see the best teams in the WPIAL every match. If we got second or third in the section, we had a good chance to do well.”

The Planets beat Fort Cherry (5-0), Thomas Jefferson (5-0) and section rival Vincentian (4-1) to reach the WPIAL title match. Sewickley Academy, which beat section rival Quaker Valley (4-1) in the other semifinal, topped Mars, 4-1, for the championship.

“Even though Sewickley beat us, I thought the boys played really well and gave them more of a match,” Knauff said. “We had played them twice before, but we gave them more of a challenge in the final.”

The Planets qualified for the PIAA tournament and defeated Elk County Catholic, 5-0, before dropping a 4-1 decision to Eastern Lebanon County in the quarterfinals at the Hershey Racquet Club.

“Anything goes in the state playoffs; you don't know how strong teams are. We went to Elk County not knowing much about them and got that win,” Knauff said. “In Hershey, we played real a strong ELCO team full of seniors. It was a match that we didn't have a great chance of winning, but the players did their best. It was really a great experience and I hope we are back there next year and we can build off this.”

Freshmen Raymundo and Gruber and sophomore Tim Hunt were the team's top three singles players. Sophomore Noah Hudak and junior Nick DeCamp finished the year as the squad's top doubles team. Freshmen Alex Gruber (Aaron's brother) and Justin Simakas were the No. 2 doubles pairing.

“Everyone played really well and improved. I thought our doubles teams really figured it out in the playoffs, and that's probably where we improved the most,” Knauff said. “We found two doubles teams that really clicked. I was really, really happy, especially, with those four guys for the way they played.”

While the Planets fell short of claiming a state championship, they gained valuable experience of competing in high-stakes matches.

“I think we peaked at the right time. The guys didn't show any nerves and played very confidently,” Knauff said. “There are a lot of intangibles that come along with (making it to Hershey). We didn't have any seniors in our top seven. I don't know if they will play the same positions next year, but the experience will definitely will help a lot.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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