By Dan Gilles
For one day last Saturday, the Westlake boys tennis team wasn’t the unbeatable force that has ruled the Southwestern Conference with an iron fist for almost nine straight years.
In the end, however, the Demons still got the last laugh.
Despite winning four of the five individual championships last Saturday in the annual SWC Tournament, which was held at Avon Lake High School, Westlake finished tied with the host Shoremen for the top team spot with 36 points each.
However, because the SWC Tournament only factors in half of the equation for the championship picture, the Demons still claimed their ninth-straight SWC boys tennis championship, by virtue of their 7-0 regular season.
“For us, by tying in the tournament and going undefeated in the regular season, I believe that makes us outright conference champs,” Westlake coach Jeffrey Mannies said. “All these guys go out there knowing that there’s a lot at stake, no matter what we do, and they all performed very well today.”
The tournament performance was led by standout senior Colton Buffington, who became the second Demon in an eight-year span to become a four-time SWC champion, joining Brad Noel. Buffington put the finishing touches on his four-peat with a 6-0, 6-0 victory over Avon Lake sophomore James Darkow.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s an honor to win the SWC one time, let alone all four times,” said Buffington, who never lost an SWC match, let alone a single set, during his four-year career. “It’s a great way to start off sectionals and districts – a definite confidence boost for me. I’m excited for what’s in store, and I’m just having a lot of fun.
“I played (Darkow) very early in the season and I beat him, 6-3, 6-1. It was just a rocky start for me and he was playing really well. Through the rest of the season, I just got more confident and I’ve been improving with every single match.”
Mannies was pleased with how his three-time state qualifier, two-time state placer and defending state runner-up performed.
“He has really been a force to be reckoned with on the court,” he said. “We’ve been lucky to have him. There haven’t been too many four-time SWC champions, at least not many that I can remember, so we’re all really proud of him for what he’s accomplished over his career. And, we’ve got a few more weeks to go.”
Westlake freshman Connor Michelich, who began the season at third singles, had the toughest final of his three counterparts, battling his friend and practice partner Greg Miller of Avon Lake for the second singles final.
It was a tough match, but Michelich prevailed over Miller, a defending district qualifier, 6-2, 6-4, rallying from a 3-1 deficit in the second game.
“Connor played both second and third singles this year, and on occasion, he played first singles,” Mannies said. “He’s undefeated in conference play in every position he’s played. For him to play at second was a good opportunity for him to raise his game.
“Greg is certainly a fine player and I’m sure they’ll go at it again next year. But Connor definitely delivered the goods on that one.”
Michelich only recently bumped up to second singles after J.T. Rapaport was removed from the team last week. That opened the door for junior Aakash Shah to play third singles, and Shah dropped a 6-0, 6-0 first round matchup with eventual champion Tim Villari of Avon Lake.
Shah rebounded to finish fifth, but Villari’s first-round win may have been the key in the Shoremen forcing the tie.
“Unfortunately, Westlake didn’t have their No. 2 guy because of an unfortunate situation,” Avon Lake coach Adam Slabodnick said. “I feel bad for them, but I definitely respect their coach for the decision that he made. We had the same situation – the second week of the season, we had to kick our No. 2 guy off from last year, and our guys dealt through adversity the entire season. We’re a better team for it, and I know Westlake will be as well.
“I’m just so proud of my boys today. This was just unbelievable. We knew we had to play a great team and we knew we had to play our absolute best tennis today to even have a chance. We’ve been talking about it all week and, really, all year since we took second place in last year’s tournament. This was our goal, and we achieved it.”
Knowing they needed to win both doubles championships just to clinch a tie at the top, both Westlake teams made quick work of their Shoremen foes.
Westlake’s Stephen Fleisher and Kevin Wang defeated Mike Nock and Jimmy Chase, 6-0, 6-2, to win the first singles crown. Moments later, Kent Dinchman and Cal Craven finished off Avon Lake’s Jack O’Neil and Austin Wright, 6-0, 6-0, to claim the second doubles crown.
“They were able to deliver at the right moment to close out the points,” Mannies said. “I thought they had a real tenacious spirit. I think they knew what was at stake. I knew they were going to go out and do their best to win, no matter what the score is.”
North Olmsted finished in fifth place in the eight-team tournament with 20 points, one point behind fourth-place Amherst. The Eagles were led by three fourth-place finishers – David Brunner (third singles), Shubham Mangla-Ernest Olesky (first doubles) and George Botosneau-Tim Donahue (second doubles).
Olmsted Falls was hampered when its top-two singles players had to default out of the tournament. The Bulldogs wound up finished tied with Berea for last place with 11 points.
All three area teams will take part in the Division I Sectional Tournament at Oberlin College, which begins today and runs through Saturday. Buffington is the top-seeded singles player, while Fleisher and Wang were seeded third at doubles.
“I worked really hard in the offseason in the gym, and throughout the season, I’ve still been putting in hours with practices and matches with my coach,” said Buffington, who will play tennis for the University of Louisville the next four years. “I feel really confident. But, I know I can’t get too far ahead of myself. My first goal is to try to win sectionals for the fourth straight year. Then, I can turn my attention to districts.”
Other area-seeded players include Lakewood’s Alex Mihas (third at singles) and St. Edward’s Jeffrey Williams (fourth at singles).
Southwestern Conference Tournament
TEAM STANDINGS: 1. (tie) Westlake, Avon Lake 36, 3. Brecksville 28, 4. Amherst 21, 5. North Olmsted 20, 6. Midpark 17, 7. (tie) Berea, Olmsted Falls 11.
FIRST SINGLES: First: Colton Buffington (Westlake) def. James Darkow (Avon Lake), 6-0, 6-0; Third: Matt Lionetti (Brecksville) def. Alex Kalnasy (Midpark), 6-7 (6-8), 6-1, 6-1; Fifth: Jack Harrington (Berea) def. Mark Ferber (Amherst), 8-6; Seventh: Aravind Kalluri (North Olmsted) won by default; Semifinals: Buffington def. Kalnasy, 6-0, 6-0; Darkow def. Lionetti, 6-2, 6-2.
SECOND SINGLES: First: Connor Michelich (Westlake) def. Greg Miller (Avon Lake), 6-2, 6-4; Third: Mark Perisutti (Brecksville) def. Kyle Szucs (Amherst), 6-2, 6-2; Fifth: Adam Poschner (Midpark) def. Davesh Chauhan (North Olmsted), 8-5; Seventh: Eric Knezevich (Berea) won by default; Semifinals: Miller def. Szucs, 6-4, 6-0; Michelich def. Perisutti, 6-4, 6-2.
THIRD SINGLES: First: Tim Villari (Avon Lake) def. Shou Vellanki (Brecksville), 6-0, 6-4; Third: Cory Habecker (Amherst) def. David Brunner (North Olmsted), 1-6, 6-4, 6-1; Fifth: Aakash Shah (Westlake) def. Ken Postel (Midpark), 8-5; Seventh: Victor Mazoyer (Berea) def. Ryan Bellinger (Olmsted Falls), 8-2; Semifinals: Villari def. Brunner, 6-1, 6-0; Vellanki def. Habecker, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.
FIRST DOUBLES: First: Stephen Fleisher-Kevin Wang (Westlake) def. Mike Nock-Jimmy Chase (Avon Lake), 6-0, 6-2; Third: David Bartizal-Zack Sroka (Amherst) def. Shubham Mangla-Ernest Olesky (North Olmsted), 6-3, 2-6, 6-2; Fifth: Sohan Vartak- Taylor Weber (Olmsted Falls) def. Chris Philips-Brandon Halupnik (Brecksville), 8-5; Seventh: Dylan Nguyen-Nathanial Naron (Midpark) def. Cody Anderson-Zach Mog (Berea), 8-6; Semifinals: Fleisher-Wang def. Mangla-Olesky, 6-4, 6-0; Nock-Chase def. Bartizal-Sroka, 6-3, 6-1.
SECOND DOUBLES: First: Kent Dinchman-Cal Craven (Westlake) def. Jack O’Neil-Austin Wright (Avon Lake), 6-0, 6-0; Third: Alex Belovich-Jake Eshelman (Brecksville) def. George Botosneau-Tim Donahue (North Olmsted), 6-4, 7-6 (8-6); Fifth: Jacob Hodge-Hanks (Olmsted Falls) def. Ivan Ganuschak-Baldwin (Midpark), 8-5; Seventh: Willie Karp-Ben Wade (Berea) def. Marcus Zappa-Joseph Szabo (Amherst), 8-5; Semifinals: Dinchman-Craven def. Botosneau-Donahue, 6-1, 6-0; O’Neil-Wright def. Belovich-Eshelman, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.