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Armstrong County tennis teams seeking improvement

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

No Armstrong School District team has reached the WPIAL girls tennis tournament since 2009, so can one of them end that drought this year?

Ford City, Kittanning and West Shamokin start Section 4-AA play Thursday, and all three share a goal of improving on last year's finishes and trying to break into the section's top three.

Indiana, Valley and Burrell made up the top half of the six-team section last year, and while Indiana is expected to repeat atop the section, the local teams hope to shorten the distance between themselves and the playoff teams.

“We're pretty excited for the season,” Kittanning coach Doug Flanders said. “I think we've closed the gap on those top teams. We're on the verge of breaking through, but we would have to play well across the board and avoid injuries and girls getting sick.”

The Wildcats' top singles players entering the season are juniors Gina Anthony and Ashley Zolocsik, while seniors Hailey Bigley and Sarah McClafferty are the only two seniors in the lineup and on the 12-player varsity roster.

Varsity experience is scattered throughout the lineup, and with a team that will mostly be around next season, the Wildcats have reason for optimism.

“We have a couple girls that were in the starting lineup all last year,” Flanders said. “We probably won't win matches 5-0, but we'll have a chance to win a lot of 3-2 matches. The girls have a really good attitude, so good things should happen.”

At West Shamokin, the school that reached the playoffs most recently, there is a stronger veteran presence in the lineup on a team with three seniors and five juniors.

Senior Kelsey Altman and junior Dawnelle Ion return for the Wolves, which makes them the only team in the section to not lose either of its top two singles players from last season.

“Kelsey's a good all-around athlete and a tall, strong, smart player,” West Shamokin coach Joe Hall said. “(Ion) was our No. 2 last year, and she only came to the game (as a freshman). If she had started playing when she was younger, she could be really outstanding now.”

Picking up tennis late is a common thread among the Wolves' players, and while Hall said that has held the program back, his current group has advanced a long way in the three years he has been the coach.

“I think our girls have improved their game and their athletic ability,” Hall said. “The trouble is there has always been a volleyball tradition at West Shamokin and Elderton before it closed. They have great coaching, and kids start playing at junior high or earlier. We don't have that for tennis.

“When I got here, I wanted us to be the best of the four, now three, teams in the school district. We were even with Kittanning last year, but now I want us to step on the court with the top teams (in the section) and be competitive.”

Ford City also struggles with a lack of players having tennis backgrounds, and it has the added obstacle of lacking a home court. A need for repairs to the Ford City courts means the Sabers will play their home matches this year at Kittanning.

The Sabers return three starters, two of whom — junior Miranda Lasher and senior Irene Hooks — will top the lineup in singles. Senior Sarah Trego is the other returning starter and only other senior for Ford City's youth-laden lineup.

“We only have two seniors this year, so I'm hoping that will help next year by getting more of these girls on the court,” Ford City coach Selina Hendrickson said. “Considering a lot of them didn't get in (matches) last year, they're hitting the ball around pretty well, and I think they'll hold their own.”

Hendrickson said her biggest goal is having her players improve through the season, and hopefully post a better record in the second half of the season than the first.

“The girls are working hard, and I enjoy seeing them improve their scores against opponents they played before,” Hendrickson said. “We always shoot to do well in section doubles and in the matches at the end of the year.”

Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mgrubba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Grubba_Trib.

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