By Dan Gilles
By Westlake coach Jeffrey Mannies’ estimation, his Demons boys tennis program had advanced at least one player to the Division I Northeast District Tournament nine consecutive years prior to this season.
Make that 10 consecutive years.
While Westlake didn’t advance any singles players out of last week’s Division I Sectional Tournament at Oberlin College’s Don Hunsinger Tennis Courts, both of the Demons doubles teams punched their ticket to districts with 3-0 performances last Tuesday.
Sophomores Connor Michelich and Cal Craven, who spent the regular season serving as Westlake’s Nos. 1 and 2 singles players, respectively, and seniors Kent Dinchman and Kevin Wang will be playing in Thursday’s districts, which are back at Oberlin College. Semifinals and finals will be held Saturday.
Michelich and Craven upset the top-seeded doubles team in their sectional – St. Ignatius’ Christian Zuber and Yaw Boakye – 6-3, 1-6, 6-3, in the doubles sectional finals to claim the championship. They’ll go into Thursday’s districts, which begin at 9 a.m., as a No. 1 seed.
“I feel excellent about our district qualifiers,” Mannies said. “They played very well (Tuesday). I think they thought out their plan and succeeded. With three days to work on strategy, they were ready for (Saturday).
“I think what it says is that, in Northeast Ohio, there are coaches and teaching pros in the area that are dedicated to the improvement of tennis, and these kids avail themselves to these coaches and pros throughout the year. We’re just fortunate that they love the game enough to keep doing it.”
In Division II, Rocky River extended its streak of district qualifiers to 10 years with senior Henry Grierson at singles and juniors Ryan McDermott and Mike Ittu at doubles qualifying out of their own sectional this past weekend. They will be joined by Bay seniors Zach Messina and Dan Hippler, who gave the Rockets five straight years of district representation.
Michelich, a district qualifier at singles last season, teamed up with Craven to make it a repeat district performance with three straight 6-0, 6-0 victories. They defeated Valley Forge’s Brian Lynch-Craig Rivera in the second round, Elyria’s Patrick McCormick-Casey Flowers in the third round, and Avon’s Chance Nicklaus-Tyler Badt in the quarterfinals.
On Saturday, the second-seeded doubles team defeated third-seeded Nick Siciliano-Bob Kirchner from St. Ignatius, 6-3, 6-1, to advance to the championship match.
“Singleswise, I knew my mental game had to be strong in order to go far,” Michelich said. “But with a doubles partner, I know I can talk to him constantly and we can pick each other up. My mental (attitude) picked up dramatically with Cal as my partner.
“It’s definitely an adjustment. I can hit my big ground strokes in singles, and in doubles, it’s more about finesse and where to place balls.”
Craven is excited to be making his second-straight district berth at doubles
“Honestly, since (Connor’s) our No. 1 singles player and I’m our No. 2, we were expecting to make it to districts,” he said. “We’ve been practicing a lot together leading up to this. We expected to go far, to make a run at districts and hopefully states if we do well at districts.”
Wang and Dinchman sailed through the second and third rounds before being taken to the limit by a pair of Southwestern Conference rivals in the quarterfinals.
After a 6-0, 6-0 win over John Marshall’s Madondo Mbemdo-Bhawana Bhulet and a 6-0, 6-1 win over Elyria’s Aaron Tolson-Scotty Peggs, they ran into Avon Lake seniors Austin Wright and Jack O’Neill, who were not only looking to qualify for districts for the first time, but also extend their program’s streak of district qualifiers to four straight years.
It took three sets and almost two hours, but Wang and Dinchman finally vanquished their rivals, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5, to punch their tickets to districts.
“After losing the first set, we immediately focused on the new set,” said Wang, who is making his third-straight district berth. “At that point, it’s a new match.”
Wright and O’Neill rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the first set to pick up the 7-5 win, and took a 2-1 lead in the third and final set. However, Wang and Dinchman – the sectional’s fourth-seeded team – rallied with three straight wins to take a 4-2 lead.
Wright and O’Neill rallied to tie it at 4 and then at 5 before the Demon duo won two straight games to take the emotional win.
“It was close, but we knew they weren’t breaking us,” Dinchman said. “So, as long as we just kept our form going and as long as kept playing, we knew we could easily take the second set. And, from there, that just gave us confidence going into the third.”
The magic ran out for Dinchman and Wang on Saturday. They lost to Zuber and Boakye, 6-4, 6-4, in the semifinals before dropping a 6-1, 6-2 decision to Siciliano and Kirchner to finish in fourth place. They’ll have to take on a champion from another sectional in the first round of Thursday’s districts.
Mannies was pleased with his doubles teams.
“I think with Connor and Cal being predominantly singles players, they play a lot throughout the year in USTA doubles tournaments,” he said. “So they’re not foreign at all to the concept of doubles being a different game than singles, and they have been able to play real well with each other. They’ve been playing together since they were young and they kind of know each other’s games.
“Kevin and Kent complement each other. Kent is the brawn, while Kevin is the mental one. Kent’s a football player, so we’ve got to smooth that out a little bit. But, he’s a good kid and they just mesh very well as a team.”
Grierson, the defending sectional champion, had to come back Friday to punch his ticket to state. Teammate Garrett Stefani, due to a quirk in the tournament layout, won three matches on Thursday to reach the quarterfinals, and tourney director Jeff Sinnema decided to suspend the entire quarterfinal round to Friday.
He picked up back-to-back 6-0, 6-0 wins on Thursday before eliminating Oberlin senior Dima Bosch in the quarterfinals on Friday, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4). On Saturday, the No. 2 seed lost to Lake Ridge’s Caleb Mayer, 6-0, 6-1, in the semifinals, but came back to defeat another Lake Ridge junior, Roger Peckham, 6-1, 6-2, to finish third.
“Last year, I lost in the first round (at districts) in a tough match,” Grierson said. “So my goal this year is to go into level-headed and calm and just hope for the best. I have the experience after going to districts for the first time in Ohio last year, and it was overwhelming. This year, I know Chaz (Hansen) and myself are at a higher-caliber level then we were last year. Hopefully, everyone at this sectional can represent well in Canton.”
On Saturday, the second-seeded team lost to third-seed Spencer Knowles and Bowe Andrews of CVCA, 6-1, 6-0, in the semifinals, then lost to Bay’s Hippler and Messina, 6-2, 7-5, in the third-place match.
“It’s unbelievable,” McDermott said. “This is our second year playing together and we always wanted to play at this level and get to this level. Now that’s actually happened, I can’t really put it into words.”
Sinnema was very pleased with how his doubles team fared.
“They’ve been this system all year long and they’ve been one of the main cogs on the team and why we’ve been successful,” he said. “They’ve got an excellent work ethic. They’ve played some great teams and had some great matches. They complement each other very well.”
Messina, who reached the Division II districts last season, had to break in a new partner when Tyler Enders was ruled academically ineligible. Despite the change of plans, he and Hippler picked up two wins on Thursday to clinch their spot in Canton this week, capped with a 6-4, 6-1 quarterfinal win over CVCA’s Ben Petrinec-Connor Holloway.
On Saturday, the top-seeded Messina and Hippler were upset unseeded Kevin Cole and Shane Spencer of Vermilion in the semifinals, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2. However, they came back to take third with the win over McDermott and Ittu.
“We came into this tournament not really sure what we were going to get,” Messina said. “I had a new partner, so I was a little unsure of how we were going to do. CVCA’s a good team and are very competitive and we weren’t really sure and we actually pulled it out and we’re very happy.”
Hippler was excited to get the chance to be play in the district tournament.
“I played singles most of the season, so it was a little different playing doubles,” Hippler said. “But, Zach’s a great partner, and I think we play pretty well together.
“This was my first year of varsity, so it feels good to be a district qualifier.”
Bay coach Dave Peters was thrilled, especially given the circumstances involved.
“It was a little tricky situation, bringing the alternate off the roster,” he said. “But Zach Messina is such a strong doubles player, and Dan Hippler turns out to have very natural doubles skills. He’s confident and his ground strokes our solid, so that compliments Zach quite well. Zach’s the attack dog and Dan Hippler’s just very, very solid.
“We’ll see how it plays out. I think they have a great shot to do something. When you go into Canton, you don’t want to go in as a third or fourth-seed, because that virtually guarantees a one-and-done.”