By Dan Gilles
Westlake was well represented at the Division I boys tennis district tournament last weekend at Oberlin College, with both doubles teams and two singles players qualifying. But, after Thursday’s first round, only one was left standing.
Senior Colton Buffington punched his ticket to his fourth-straight state tournament with two victories – a 6-1, 6-1 win over Walsh Jesuit’s Matt Miles and a 6-0, 6-1 win over Willoughby South’s Vince Anzalone.
He followed that on Saturday with a 6-0, 6-1 semifinal win over Walsh Jesuit’s Aaron Sandberg and claimed his second-straight district championship with a 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 win over Cloverleaf’s Jacob Dunbar, the Medina Sectional champion.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” said Buffington, now 23-0. “Getting to Columbus is a big deal, and I’m very, very happy to know that I’m going back down there.
“I won SWC’s with my team and we were moving forward and everyone was playing well. My goal was to keep my head down, be humble and stay focused. Winning sectionals was a great confidence booster. I’m just having a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to continue it and see where it can go.”
At the Division II district tournament at Canton’s Weis Park, only two area entities out of the four that qualified won a first round match last Friday – Rocky River junior Henry Grierson and Fairview seniors Colin Schmitz and Cole Ziegler. However, they were each eliminated in the quarterfinals, one match away from qualifying for state.
Buffington was pleased to be able to punch his ticket to state on Thursday, but admitted that a district title was one of his goals.
“Winning sectionals was one thing, but moving forward and winning districts is something else,” he said. “My freshman and sophomore years, I didn’t do too hot here, although I was able to qualify (for state) each time. Last year, I won it and I played really well.
“Repeating is a great confidence booster for me going down to state.”
Buffington said that he’s not putting any extra pressure on himself for his final high school matches of his fine career.
“It’s going to be tough (in Columbus) no matter what, but it will be better going in as a No. 1 seed not seeing any of these guys (at the Oberlin District) in the first round,” he said. “I picked a college and signed with a great program (the University of Louisville). My family’s here. My friends are here. I’m just hanging out playing tennis outside.
“I’m loving it. I’m competing, and you can’t ask for more than that.”
Westlake coach Jeffrey Mannies was pleased with Buffington’s performance.
“I’m extremely excited for Colton,” he said. “He’s worked so hard at different facets of his game. He deserves to be (at state), and we’re looking forward to seeing what can happen there.
“His strengths are that he’s in very good physical condition, his mental game is right on the money, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play better than he’s playing right now. All of those facets of the game will only do him well next weekend.”
Freshman Connor Michelich lost to Uniontown Lake’s Ross Whitaker, 6-2, 6-1, in the first round. Also, both doubles teams were eliminated in the first round – Stephen Fleischer and Kevin Wang lost to Copley’s Andrew Ong and Jarad Pennington, 6-0, 6-1, while Kent Dinchman and Cal Craven lost to Revere’s Noah Hendrickson and Peter Harris, 6-0, 6-1.
“They played well, but at the end of the day, their opponents played better,” Mannies said. “To end the season with six district qualifiers constitutes a successful season. And then to have Colton go on for his fourth year at the state tournament is outstanding.”
Grierson, who moved in from the Philadelphia area last summer, won his first district match, defeating University School’s Rob Stroup, 7-5, 6-4. However, he was eliminated from state contention with a 6-3, 6-3 loss to Warren JFK’s Jad Abdul-Aal.
“It was new to me, but it was lot better than what I thought was going to happen,” said Grierson, whose season ends at 21-5. “Even though I lost, I felt that this was one of the best matches I’ve played all season. The kid was just better than I was today.
“Moving here this year, I didn’t really know anybody in the area, so every match, I didn’t know what to expect. Some matches were the toughest I’ve played in life, just because of the surprises with different playing styles. I met a lot of new friends throughout the season. It was just a lot of fun.”
Schmitz and Ziegler salvaged a forgettable doubles first round for the area at Canton, outlasting St. Thomas Aquinas senior Jay Bond and sophomore Josh Reyes, 7-6 (7-3), 0-6, 6-2.
However, they were defeated by Lakeview’s Zack McDivitt and Aaron Paczac, the top-seeded team at the districts, 6-2, 6-3.
It was the first district tennis victory of any kind for Fairview, which made the two seniors very proud.
“It means a lot and it’s really exciting,” Schmitz said. “It’s good for the school. Our coach is happy with us, and I’m always happy when he’s happy. It’s nice to be a part of it.
“It’s kind of like a last run at it for us. Cole and I started off as freshmen having never played tennis before, and we kind of grew together at it over the four years. It was fun to make a last run at it our senior year.”
Ziegler was proud that they qualified for districts for the second-straight year, and the first-round win was icing on the cake.
“Last year, we were the No. 4 seed here, and this year, we were the No. 2 seed,” he said. “So, this has been a completely different experience, to say the least.
“There’s a huge difference in playing a third-seed from playing a first-seed. It was a lot easier than last year. Just getting that experience last year I think really helped.”
Grierson’s teammates, seniors Jon Lihani and Tim Smith, were eliminated by Hawken’s Siddarth Ahuja and Daniel Lubarsky, 6-0, 6-0.
Bay senior Scott Geuther and junior Zach Messina, the West Shore Conference doubles champions, were eliminated by Gilmour Academy’s Weston Noall and Mike Riley, 6-0, 6-1.
Rocky River coach Jeff Sinnema was proud of his district qualifiers.
“We’re just happy that we were able to represent our conference and our sectional down here,” he said. “I wish we could have performed better. I know that kids are disappointed because they didn’t live up to what they expected. But, both Henry and Chaz are back next year, which will be fun.
“Next year, our conference will be much more balanced with Lakewood coming in, and it will add some depth and credibility to us. I think, with us, Bay, Vermilion and CVCA getting stronger, I think we can represent Northeast Ohio better down here next year.”