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Friday, Mar 27, 2015

Lady Bears, Eagles locked in struggle for 3A-6 supremacy

TONY CASTRO Hernando Today correspondent

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Hernando County’s girls tennis regular season concluded with more questions than answers.

Two of the most anticipated matches – Central versus Springstead at Delta Woods Park and Central vs. Hernando at the Brooksville City Library Courts – were rained out and will not be made up.

Due to the timing of these matches – so close to spring break – the four-team race to the finish line concluded with Hernando (5-1 county) earning the Hernando County championship based on the highest winning percentage.

All five local public school programs will shift their focus to a trio of district tournaments signaling the start of the state series.

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

Hernando and Nature Coast will travel Tuesday to Pasco High in Dade City for the nine-team Class 2A, District 6 Tournament.

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

The team champions and runners-up will advance to the April 9 regional semifinals. The regional finals are set for April 11.

It’s been six years since the Central Lady Bears last hoisted a district championship trophy.

In nine tremendous seasons former skipper Joe Nicolai guided Central to six district championships and two runner-up crowns. His teams captured 107-of-134 matches they played in (80 percent) from 1999-2007. During his run, Nicolai had 27 individual district champions crowned.

Nicolai’s successor, Sonya Burns, enters this week’s 3A-6 event with her best-ever squad.

Central just missed out in returning to the regional playoffs last season, dropping Day 3’s district tiebreaker for second place against Land O’ Lakes, 4-2.

This time, Burns’ crew arrives 11-3 overall including a fine 5-1 slate against 3A-6 opposition. The lone blemish was March 16’s 5-2 loss to upstart Springstead.

Central’s optimism was bolstered with a scalp against defending 3A-6 champion Zephyrhills on March 5, 6-1, and Feb. 12’s 4-3 nod at Land O’ Lakes.

The Lady Bears enter with four returning starters from last year’s tourney at River Ridge including: seniors Danielle Daly, Brittany Blackburn and Jordan Stenholm, and sophomore Nicole Carrier.

Blackburn and Stenholm are defending district champions at No. 4 and No. 5 singles respectively.

The Lady Bear quartet is bolstered by talented freshman Vanessa Valencia. Valencia arrives with a team-best 13-1 won-lost slate followed closely by Blackburn (12-2), Stenholm (11-3), Carrier (8-6) and Daly (4-10). Central’s No. 2 doubles team of Blackburn/Stenholm rolls in 13-1.

Is it any wonder sixth-year mentor Burns is so optimistic?

“With the exception of Vanessa, I’ve had most of these girls for four years,” pointed out Burns, who is 44-39 lifetime. “It shows.”

What Burns enjoys most is the Lady Bears’ spirit de corps.

“I love our camaraderie,” she said. “Everybody pulls for one another. Last year at this point we were doing the best we can. This year, they’re walking in realizing they can win this.”

In forecasting 3A-6, “I think the two best teams are from Hernando County – us and Springstead,” noted Burns.

On the keys to victory, “Our strength all season long has been our play at No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 singles, and No. 2 doubles,” said Burns. “Individually our No. 1 and No. 2 singles matches have been real close. We’d like to turn a couple of those around.

“Going in we need everybody to play their best game,” added Burns. “Even our underclassmen want to win this for our seniors.”

The often-maligned Springstead program began the season 3-2, including agonizing 4-3 setbacks to Hernando and Nature Coast. But from Feb. 19 to the close of the season, Springstead (13-3 overall) went 10-1.

The Lady Eagles’ 10-match winning skein officially ended with March 21’s 5-2 setback at Lecanto.

Springstead’s first-year mentor Rick Scholl takes satisfaction in the Lady Eagles’ 6-0 mark against 3A-6 foes.

Besides solving Central – something no other 3A-6 squad could do – Springstead tamed Zephyrhills and Land O’ Lakes, 4-3.

The optimism is there that Springstead could surpass 2003’s second-place finish in the 3A-7 Tourney at River Ridge under Louise Downey and give Springstead its first-ever district title.

In 2012, under Hank Deslaurier Sr., the Lady Eagles finished sixth in 3A-6. The good news is like Central, Springstead returns four starters from last year’s tourney including: junior Robyn Cotney and sophomores Bryn Buckner, Sara Guerrero and Scarlet Semack.

Another sophomore, Ashley Clark, is expected to round out the squad. Clark replaces sophomore Alison Wilfong, who is out for the remainder of the year due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Cotney leads all Hernando County players in singles action behind a stout 14-0 record followed by Semack (12-3), Guerrero (9-4), Clark (7-0) and Buckner (6-9).

Semack/Cotney at No. 2 doubles arrive 10-1. The duo’s lone setback was to Blackburn/Stenholm in three sets, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Of note, none of this year’s Lady Eagle netters reached the pressured-backed finals last spring.

“We’ve played pretty well this year,” explained Coach Scholl. “In each of our losses we were missing a key starter. For instance, Sara (Guerrero) plays such a huge part of our singles and doubles – missed the Lecanto match.”

On who’s hot, “Robyn is our unofficial captain,” remarked Scholl. “She’s been our steady Eddie. When she’s out there she’s all business. I can bet my paycheck when she’s done she’ll come back with a ‘W.’ I remember a match she was down, 4-1, and winked, saying, ‘Coach, I got this.’ And she came back and won.

“Clark has been a pleasant surprise,” added Scholl. “So far, she’s the only player to beat Central’s Valencia. To me, she’s our most improved player.”

On forecasting 3A-6, “If we would have beaten Zephyrhills and/or Land O’Lakes, say, 7-0, then I would call it a two-horse race with Central,” shrugged Scholl. “But we won both times, 4-3. So, I’d call it a four-horse race.”

On the keys for the Lady Eagles to advance to regionals, “We have to play smart and not give anything away,” described Coach Scholl. “We have to play consistent and we have to play the matches like we practice.”

Since Teri Sellers’ seventh and final season as coach in 2006, Hernando High has not captured a district championship.

Pete Lahey’s 2007 squad came the closest fashioning a 13-0 regular season and finishing as district runners-up.

This year’s team might be Lahey’s best since 2007 – or at least until sophomore Jada Bergstrom suffered a hairline fracture and was lost for the season.

Despite the loss of Bergstrom, Hernando has pieced together a fine 11-1 campaign.

“If you would have told me in the beginning of the season this team would finish 11-1, I would have laughed at you,” scoffed Coach Lahey. “It’s a tribute to these kids how they’ve responded to what’s happened.”

The Lady Leopards’ only loss arrived on March 7 at Delta Woods Park, a 4-3 loss against Springstead. Interestingly, Hernando never completed its one scheduled match against Central.

Though the Purple and Gold arrive in Dade City with a 5-0 2A-6 slate, the Lady Leopards are not considered the district front-runners.

“Sure, losing Jada (Bergstrom) didn’t help our chances. We’ve had to shuffle the lineup since she went down,” explained the seventh-year mentor Lahey. “Where we’ve improved is focusing better. We’re all making better decisions and decreasing the errors on the court.”

On predicting 2A-6, “To me, I see three really good teams – Pasco, Nature Coast and us,” declared Lahey. “Whoever plays the best over a two-day period will be the team that wins. At this point, I see it as a toss-up.”

Hernando arrives with freshman sensation Grace Curren and senior Shelby Marrero both 11-1 at No. 1 and No. 2 singles respectively.

With Curren/Marrero at No. 1 doubles, the Lady Leopard duo is 10-1. Only Weeki Wachee’s Erin Moynihan/Brianne Janak solved Curren/Marrero, 9-8 (11-9).

Look for junior Lisa Marie Steinkamp (9-3) to anchor No. 3 singles followed by junior Shelby Smith (5-4) at No. 4 and freshman Caitlynn Nixon (6-3) at No. 5.

“There’s a lot of pressure out there in winning at No. 1, No. 2 and No. 1 doubles,” pointed out Coach Lahey. “The key is they need to play well. Nothing is given to anybody until you step on the court.

“I like districts because everything goes back to zero,” added Coach Lahey. “So much depends on the luck of the draw. In 2009, we had the worst draw I’ve ever seen and we didn’t win a match – so I know how important the draw is.

“Once the kids get out there we have to focus on playing one match at a time.”

For the past seven years, the Nature Coast Lady Sharks have been fixture in the regional playoffs. For the past three seasons, Nature Coast has finished as district runner-up.

Standing in the way this time is Hernando and Pasco. Pasco edged Nature Coast, 4-3. Hernando solved Nature Coast, 5-2 and 4-3.

The lone returning district champion from last year is senior Christine Sniffen from No. 3 singles.

Nature Coast is paced by junior Katie Viola (10-3), followed by sophomores Madeline Pickersgill (9-3) and Dorothy Cash (9-4), junior Jennifer Sniffen (7-2) and Christine Sniffen (7-4).

Second-year Nature Coast mentor John Downey did not return a call for this story.

Last spring, second-year Weeki Wachee finished fifth in the nine-team 1A-8 Tournament in Tampa.

The Lady Hornets (3-15) face the daunting task of competing against some of the premier programs in the area.

Junior Erin Moynihan leads Weeki Wachee with a 7-1 slate in part-time singles appearances and a combined 6-2 mark in doubles.

“Everyone here knows what we’re up against. We’ve seen great competition all season long,” pointed third-year mentor Elisa Awtrey.

On the Lady Hornets’ district prospects, “At the end of the day we’re all judged on numbers, but we celebrate individual improvement,” shared Coach Awtrey. “We want to go in with our heads right and have some fun.

“So much depends on the draw,” added Coach Awtrey. “But all I want our kids to do is play with no regrets and be satisfied with their performance when they’re done.”

At a Glance

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

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

Where – Pasco High tennis courts, 36850 State Road 52, Dade City

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 Girls 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.

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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