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Friday, Mar 27, 2015

Eagles, Sharks look to advance to regionals

TONY CASTRO Hernando Today correspondent

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The brief regular season for boys tennis gives way beginning Monday and Tuesday, with three separate district tournaments signaling the start of the state series.

On Monday in Hillsborough County, Weeki Wachee will take part in the crowded, eight-team Class 1A, District 8 Tournament held at the Hillsborough Community College Tennis Courts in Tampa.

On Tuesday, Nature Coast and Hernando will journey to Anclote for the nine-team Class 2A, District 6 Tournament.

Also beginning Tuesday, Central and Springstead will visit the Jim Valentine Sport Complex Tennis Courts at River Ridge in the eight-team Class 3A, District 6 Tournament.

By Wednesday (weather permitting) all three districts will crown their champions and runners-ups, who will move on to the April 9 regional first round. The state’s regional finals are set for April 11.

Springstead is attempting to navigate through uncharted waters. Never before in the program’s 34-year history have the Eagles ever returned home with a district championship trophy.

That drought, however, is expected to end this week.

Last spring, Springstead finished 14-3 and dropped the 3A-6 tiebreaker for first place – losing to Land O’ Lakes on Day 3, 4-2.

This season, the Eagles (13-2, 5-0 3A-6) would like to surpass the three district championship blue ribbons attained at No. 3 and No. 4 singles along with No. 2 doubles of a year ago.

Second-year Eagle skipper Joe Nicolai pins his team’s title hopes on four returning starters: seniors Carl Zee (10-4) and Marcel Leaman (9-5), junior Hank Deslaurier (12-2) and sophomore Patrick Deslaurier (12-2).

Second-year sophomore Robert Hoover (11-3), a first-year starter, rounds out the lineup.

Patrick Deslaurier, elevated to No. 1 singles, is the defending district champion at No. 3. His older brother, Hank, who plays at No. 3 singles, is the defending champ at No. 4.

Zee finished as district runner-up last spring at No. 1. Leaman wants to improve upon his winless finish in last year’s tourney at No. 5.

In the offseason, the team’s No. 2 player from last spring, Trevor Whitmill, saw his family relocate to Tampa. Whitmill teamed with Hank Deslaurier for a district championship at No. 2 doubles.

“The guys are prepared,” explained Coach Nicolai, who toted home six district championship and two runner-up trophies across nine seasons with the Central Lady Bears before retiring. “Where it goes from here is in their hands.

On what could tip the scales, “A lot depends on the draw and our lower-seeded guys coming through,” pointed out Nicolai. “I think we have a great shot at bringing home Springstead’s first district championship.”

On what obstacles stand in the way, “Even though (Colin) Roller graduated, Land O’ Lakes still has a great No. 1 (David Dollbaum) and Mitchell has a very good team,” described Coach Nicolai. “All of our guys have to play like they’re capable of playing. We can’t afford any 0-1 efforts.”

It doesn’t seem so long ago (2005-06) when the Bears captured back-to-back district championships under head coach Hank Deslaurier Sr.

Since then the Bears have slid on to tough times.

Last spring, none of the Bears returned to the courts on Day 2. The reason: On Day 1, Central dropped all five of its singles matches and both doubles.

The Bears went 0-14 this spring including a 0-6 slate against 3A-6 competition.

As far as the district championship, first-year Central mentor Bob Gill believes, “Springstead has the definite edge and Mitchell is a very close second. I see Leesburg very close to Land O’ Lakes for third.”

With the Bears capturing 3-of-70 singles bouts and 2-of-28 doubles matches, do they just want the curtains to come down?

“There is some of that feeling,” explained Coach Gill. “Some of our kids have made improvements, just not enough. All I’m hoping for is for some close matches. I’d love to see a couple of our guys push their opponents a little bit.”

From 2009-11, Nature Coast collected back-to-back-to-back district championships under Tom Brown.

In 2012, the Sharks made it four straight regional appearances after losing the 2A-6 title to Pasco, 18-15.

This year, without two-time Hernando County Player of the Year Zenon Kouts, the Sharks (12-4) not only fell to Pasco in Brooksville, 6-1, but were upset by Ridgewood in New Port Richey, 4-3.

Eighth-year mentor Brown was so disappointed with the loss to the Rams, he said, “That was the worst loss of my career. I was so upset. We threw away three matches that cost us seeds. I remember I was so upset, I didn’t say a word on the way home.”

Two Shark sophomores, Jesse DeWitt and Conner Schwefringhaus, return from last year’s district team. Though Schwefringhaus finished 1-1 at No. 3 singles, DeWitt is a returning district champion from No. 4 singles.

The Sharks are led by a first-year starter, sophomore Jerry Bianculli (14-1), who plays mostly at No. 5 singles.

“We’re going in trying to do the best we can; that’s all I can ask for,” pointed out Coach Brown. “This team is different than my others; it’s much more inexperienced and really young overall. There’s really not much pressure on this group – which is different from a lot of our other teams.”

On the ever critical seeds, “Being seeded is like having a bull’s eye on your back,” explained Coach Brown. “We should get three guys seeded.”

On how the Sharks should fare, “Pasco is the team to beat; they’re better this year than they were last year,” noted Brown. “I think second place is between us and Ridgewood. I think both of us are fairly even.”

A year ago in the 2A-6 Tourney, Hernando went 0-for-5 in its singles bouts before earning one point behind its No. 2 doubles team.

This year only junior James Ortega (6-8) and senior Pablo Ilagan (4-2) return from the 2012 power failure at districts.

For a once proud program, the Leopard netters, like Central, have also stumbled on hard times.

The school’s seventh coach in seven seasons, Erik Lawson, is a former Leopard standout.

“Everyone here has been improving dramatically since the beginning of the season,” explained Lawson. “The main problem we have is most of the team is beginning players. All I want them to do is continue to battle.”

On the Leopards’ best bets to advance to a district championship. “James (Ortega) is by far our best player,” said Lawson. “Unfortunately, he’s not going to be seeded so he’s going to have to fight his way through the bracket.

“I think our No. 2 doubles team (senior Tausif Ahmed/frosh Charles Steinkamp) is unorthodox. It’s hard to explain to other coaches why they’re so successful (7-3),” shrugged Lawson. “They play unconventional tennis, other guys can’t replicate the way they play together; their style works for them.”

On the teams to beat in 2A-6, “Pasco is really strong; they remind me a lot of when I played here. They’re strong one through five,” said Lawson. “I think the second-best team is Nature Coast. They’re a little stronger one through five than, say, either Fivay or Ridgewood.”

In 2012, Weeki Wachee tied Cambridge Christian for fourth in the stacked 1A-8 Tournament in Tampa.

Unfortunately for the Hornets (10-8 overall), tennis powerhouses Tampa Prep, Tampa-Berkeley Prep and Carrollwood Day all dominate the 1A-8 picture.

Weeki Wachee does return three starters including: Chris Rosser (13-5), Andrew Jensen (9-9) and Jason Morton (6-7).

Problem is the Hornets wilted at the finish line dropping their last three matches.

According to second-year head coach Bob Croyle, Hornet frosh Mark Mulleavey (10-6), a mainstay in singles and doubles action, did not play in the final three matches.

As of press time, Mulleavey has not been medically cleared to play but Coach Croyle expects him to suit up.

“Personally, I think he’ll be all right,” said Croyle. “Even if he’s not 100 percent, Mark is better than anyone else we have.”

On the Hornets’ chances, “It really depends on Mark; if he can’t play we might not be able to get the amount of points we got last year at No. 2 doubles. Our district is so tough; we have three state contenders – Berkeley Prep, Tampa Prep and Carrollwood Day – all in one tournament.

“At this point, all I want our guys to do is fight until the end,” admitted Croyle. “Our biggest improvement has come from simply battling in matches. We need that to continue.”

At a Glance

What – Class 3A, District 6 Boys Tennis Tournament.

Who – Eight schools in a single-elimination format featuring: Central, Land O’ Lakes, Sunlake, Leesburg, River Ridge, Mitchell, Springstead and Zephyrhills. Defending champion is Land O’ Lakes; defending runner-up is Springstead.

Where – River Ridge Middle/High School’s Jim Valentine Sports Complex Tennis Courts, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey.

When – Tuesday’s action runs from 8:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. Wednesday’s action runs from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

At Stake – Champion and runner-up advance to April 9 Class 3A, Region III semifinals. Team trophies awarded to top two teams. Ribbons are awarded to top five singles champions and both doubles champions.

What – Class 2A, District 6 Boys Tennis Tournament.

Who – Nine schools in a single-elimination format featuring: Hernando, Nature Coast, Pasco, Hudson, Fivay, Ridgewood, Gulf, Wesley Chapel and host Anclote. Defending champion is Pasco; defending runner-up is Nature Coast.

Where – Anclote High tennis courts, 1540 Sweetbriar Dr., Holiday.

When – Tuesday and Wednesday

At Stake – Champion and runner-up advance to April 9 Class 2A, Region III semifinals. Team trophies awarded to top two teams. Ribbons are awarded to top five singles champions and both doubles champions.

What – Class 1A, District 8 Boys Tennis Tournament.

Who – Up to nine schools in a single-elimination format featuring: Academy at the Lakes, Bishop McLaughlin, Weeki Wachee, Tampa-Berkeley Prep, Carrollwood Day, Cambridge Christian, Citrus Park Christian, Tampa Prep and Seffner Christian.

Where – Hillsborough Community College tennis courts. 4001 W Tampa Bay Blvd. Tampa.

When – Monday and Tuesday, April 1-2.

At Stake – Champion and runner-up advance to April 9 Class 1A, Region IV semifinals. Team trophies awarded to top two teams. Ribbons are awarded to top five singles champions and both doubles champions.

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