By Dan Gilles
Not many teams can lose a defending state girls tennis champion and still be considered as strong as they were the season before.
Such is the case with Westlake, traditionally one of the strongest and most respected girls tennis programs in Northeast Ohio, who lose Lauren Golick to graduation after she won the Division I State Singles Championship last season but return three others who reached the districts along with her.
Senior Julia Dunbar, head coach Ralph Dunbar’s daughter, will ascend up from second singles to first singles this season. She is a defending Southwestern Conference champion who qualified for the Division I District Tournament at singles last season.
Senior Melissa Djohan (second singles) and sophomore Lindsey Golick (third singles) qualified for districts last season as a doubles team and won the first doubles championship in the SWC Tournament. There is a chance that they could be paired up for another postseason run.
Other letterwinners for the Demons include seniors Paavani Reddy (first doubles) and Erin Tanker (second doubles). Reddy won the third singles SWC championship last season, while Tanker was a runner-up at second doubles.
Freshman Leah Choban (doubles/singles) and junior Gwynn Kelleher (doubles/singles) will round out the starting lineup for Westlake this season.
“We’re bringing back players from last year’s squad that are versatile in both singles and doubles, which is a definite strength,” Coach Dunbar said. “Our goal is to win the outright SWC championship for the sixth year in a row and try to get as many girls as we can into districts and state.”
Westlake went 7-0 in the SWC last season, en route to its fifth-straight crown.
One of Westlake’s biggest challenges will come from Avon Lake. The Shoregals finished third in the SWC last season, going 5-2, but took second place in the LCAAA Tournament behind three-time champion Avon.
Avon Lake returns five letterwinners, led by senior Erin Hrivnak. Hrivnak is a three-time SWC runner-up at first singles, finishing behind Lauren Golick, and is aiming to finally get over that hump in her final season.
Sophomores Rachel Johnson and Alexis Krieg, senior Kylee Loebick, and junior Maya Wanner are also returning after seeing varsity action last year. Johnson was the LCAAA runner-up at first doubles last year and Wanner was the LCAAA runner-up at second doubles. Krieg played second singles as a freshman last season.
Freshman Amanda Hoffman and sophomore Lauren Sabo will round out the starting lineup for Avon Lake.
“We have a strong core of experienced players, even though we have youth on our side,” said Avon Lake coach Christine Dieken, a former doubles state champion for the Shoregals along with her younger sister, Nikki Chiricosta. “Erin Hrivnak is a seasoned veteran and leads our team at the No. 1 singles position. We are a more experienced team this season than we have been the last two years. Most importantly, our girls have fantastic camaraderie.
“Two of our returning starters, Alexis Krieg and Rachel Johnson, were successful varsity starters last year and look to build upon their great success at such a young age. Maya Wanner has two more seasons ahead of her as a junior even though she has already accomplished a great deal at second doubles in making the finals of the LCAAA last year.”
Johnson’s and Wanner’s partners last season each graduated, so both will have to break in new doubles partners, either separately or with each other.
“The Shoregals’ goal for this season is to fight for the LCAAA crown at our home courts,” Dieken said. “We finished runner-up to Avon the last two years and we would like to build on our second-place finish there and take home the championship.
“Moreover, we want to remain at the top of the SWC. Last year we finished third behind Brecksville and Westlake. The goal is to win the SWC this year and hopefully have some individual champions at the SWC tournament as well.
“Erin Hrivnak will be a very strong force in the SWC this year and certainly could take home the title. She will have some especially tough competition in Westlake’s Julia Dunbar. Both are fantastic players.”
Avon Lake and Westlake will play each other at Avon Lake on Aug. 26.
Laura Graham returns to Olmsted Falls for her 16th year as the girls (and boys) head tennis coach, looking to improve on a disappointing season last season.
The Bulldogs only return three letterwinners – seniors Michelle Bertrand, Holly Taylor and Sarah Stark – having graduated six seniors from last year’s team.
“We’re definitely rebuilding,” Graham said. “Our main weakness is our experience together as a team. We haven’t had enough time to play matches in the past few weeks, and that has been a challenge.”
Juniors Paige Bokman and Mallory Bridle, and sophomores Jennifer Betrand, Morgan Ashton and Damaris Pierce are all returning from JV and are hoping to make varsity.
“The team goal is to go out on the courts every day and improve upon the day before,” Graham said. “This is a smart, hardworking group of young ladies and I have confidence that they can come together and show what all their hard work has done for their game. We will take each match as it comes and be competitive and keep our great Bulldog spirit.
“Westlake is always going to be a strong team – I’ve known a lot of the girls for many years and, although they graduated the state champion, they’ve got some great players in Dunbar and Djohan. Many other teams have graduated a lot of seniors, too, so it will be interesting to see what this season brings.”
North Olmsted finished sixth in the eight-team SWC last season and will have a team full of underclassmen without one single senior.
Sophomores Delaney Sherman (first) and Morgan Scholz (second), and junior Rachel Moell (third) will make up the singles players for the Eagles. Juniors Mina Diamantis-Olivia Antonescu (first) and sophomores Kelly Luck-Kayla Conway (second) will make up the doubles teams.
Head coach Eric Hodge returns for his 13th year at the helm at North Olmsted, while Matt DeMain returns as his 12th year as Hodge’s assistant.
Amherst, which finished fourth in the SWC last season (and third in the LCAAA Tournament), returns seven letterwinners from that team and could be a darkhorse contender.
With Berea and Midpark merging this season, the SWC will have seven schools this season. That will change in the near future, as Avon, Midview and Lakewood will be joining from the West Shore Conference.
The SWC Tournament will be held on Sept. 21 at Medina High School.