Demons look to extend SWC dominance
By Dan Gilles
Westlake hasn’t lost an Southwestern Conference boys tennis match in over six years, winning the conference title all of those years.
Even though one half of the Demons’ state qualifying doubles team in junior Connor Michelich decided not to come out for the team this spring, they still appear in good shape to make it seven years of dominance.
Westlake returns eight lettermen from last year’s team, which went 11-7 overall and won the SWC title, led by junior Cal Craven. Craven teamed with Michelich to finish second at the Division I Oberlin Sectional and Oberlin District to qualify for the state tournament.
Along with Craven, Westlake has four seniors returning – captain and former district qualifier Kent Dinchman, Pranay Arora, Cyrus Kharche and Krish Shah – two other juniors in Thomas Reusser and Ameesh Shah, and sophomore Kenan Dinchman.
“Following an exceptional last year, Westlake comes back to the courts strong, confident and determined with the depth of experience necessary for another successful season with eight returning lettermen,” said Westlake coach Jeffrey Mannies, entering his sixth year coaching the boys. “The competition will be likewise strong; however, we are prepared with 10 months of playing and conditioning behind us.
“The Demons are mentally and physically ready to take the courts for another successful season.”
One of Westlake’s biggest challenges to its dominance may come from Avon Lake. The Shoremen, three-time SWC runners-up behind the Demons, return six total lettermen, including one of the best players from two years ago in senior James Darkow.
Darkow, a former district qualifier and Lorain County Athletic Administrators Association Tournament champion, took last year off to focus on track. This year, both he and fellow senior Tim Villari will play tennis part time while focusing on running track. However, their mere presences are enough for coach Adam Slabodnick to raise his expectations for the spring.
“James and Tim have made it their No. 1 goal in tennis to win the SWC,” said Slabodnick, entering his fifth year. “We won’t have either for the postseason, as they’ll be focused on making state in track by then. But they will be available for the SWC Tournament, and we hope we’ll have a shot at the top spot as a result.”
Whenever Darkow (first singles) and Villari (second singles) won’t be available for tennis, junior Austin Rice (third singles) will move up to first. Rice played a lot of first singles when Villari went down with injuries last year and held his own as a sophomore, helping the Shoremen go 11-5 and 6-1 in the SWC.
Other lettermen include junior Alec Turung (singles and doubles, depending on day and availability) and sophomores Oliver Wilhelm and Matt Sladek (first doubles).
Newcomers up from JV include sophomore Parker MacDonald (second singles when Darkow and Villari are absent), junior Matt Duskey, sophomore James Moore (second doubles) and sophomore Robert Hoffman (singles and doubles).
“We’re looking for Austin Rice to step up in his third year and be our team leader,” Slabodnick said. “He’s been running all our offseason workouts. If he plays first, second or third singles, he’ll be our leader whether Tim or James are there. He’s the guy our younger players look up to, and he’s been great in that role.
“Baseball cut him as a freshman, and we’re thankful for that. He’s been such a help. He’s a great player and fun to watch.”
Slabodnick is also hopeful to get back to winning the LCAAA Tournament. They had won it three years in a row prior to slipping to fourth last season behind Lake Ridge Academy, Vermilion and Avon.
“We have youth at the doubles positions, but I know from the beginning of season to the end, you’ll see huge growth from all those boys in there,” Slabodnick said. “We graduated eight seniors last year, but I feel like we’re actually better with James back and the sophomores making leaps and bounds.
“With Michelich taking the season off, that makes (the SWC title) a bit more feasible for us, more attainable. They’re all in it to win it this year. This is a very dedicated group of guys, that’s for sure. We’re super pumped for this season.”
North Olmsted used a strong senior class last year to go 11-7 (4-2 SWC) last season and finish third in the conference. However, the Eagles will only have two lettermen back from that team.
Juniors Ernest Olesky and Parth Patel return and will be playing doubles. Olesky has been at first doubles all three years he’s been with North Olmsted.
Newcomers include seniors Tyler Roll, Robert Callam and Eddie Digges, juniors Brad Reinhard and Tim Szeltner, sophomore Billy Boerwinkle and freshman Taylor Benjamin.
“We have some experienced doubles players and the players have all been working hard on their games,” said North Olmsted coach Matthew DeMain, entering his seventh year at the helm. “However, our singles players do not have any varsity match experience. We graduated four players who played a significant role in the past three years for us. Because of this, we are mostly an inexperienced team.
“However, we have 15 total kids in our program right now and many of them have been working hard for the last 10 months because they know that they will be playing for the varsity this year. Overall, we probably will not be as strong as we were last year, but the new varsity players are looking forward to the challenge ahead of them.”
DeMain is excited about Boerwinkle and Benjamin, who will likely play the top two singles spots, and Roll, a co-captain who will play third singles this year.
Our goal will always be to finish in the top half of the SWC,” he said. “This will be a challenge this year as there are many good team in the conference. Westlake is one of the best teams in the entire state of Ohio. Avon Lake has depth, a good coach and experience. Berea-Midpark and Brecksville will also be tough this year. As always, there will be depth in the SWC.”
Olmsted Falls returns five letter winners from last year’s team, including the first girl to ever letter at boys tennis at the school in senior Julie Wu.
Wu, who played second doubles last year, will be joined by fellow seniors Paul Katz and Ryan Bellinger, junior Tyler Zalac and sophomores Brian Chaya and Zach Buchta as letterwinners. Katz was a member of the state runner-up bowling team during the winter and he and Chaya took third at first doubles at the SWC Tournament.
Several JV players are up for the last open starting spot. The leading contenders include senior Tony Kollar, sophomore Josh Lambert and junior Kat Karolak. Karolak will likely start on the JV team, but coach Laura Graham says the left-hander is showing promise.
“We are a hard working, athletic team with great positive attitudes who not afraid to challenge themselves and one another to get to the next level,” said Graham, entering her 16th year as the Bulldogs’ coach. “We have great supportive parents as well – I love that they are always there to cheer the team on and do whatever they can to support our tennis team. They are the best
“We are lacking time on the courts this spring due to the weather. We are going to have to play catch up to get ready for the SWC matches.”
Graham also believes that the SWC is a little more open than it’s been in years past.
“There is no clear standout team this year,” she said. “It’s going to be an interesting season and it will come down to which team can sustain through what is sure to be a cold season – hopefully everyone will stay healthy and we can get our tournament in on the day it is scheduled.”
The SWC Tournament will be held on April 25 at Medina High School.
Graham is also excited about the new tennis courts that were built at her school this year.
“We have stunning new courts – the best in the SWC and it has made such a difference on the days we were able to get on the courts,” she said. “No puddles or uneven surfaces to battle. It’s been fantastic.
“We (tennis team/families) are so grateful to the district and to the Olmsted Falls athletic boosters for making the commitment to the tennis program. I walk out on the courts and feel like I am standing on the courts at the US Open. Life is good.”
Other teams competing in the SWC include Brecksville, Berea-Midpark and Amherst.