Boys Varsity Tennis Gunning for the State Championship

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Jack Tribble preparing for a serve in a home match against STAB. (Photo: Eric Wallace)

Last spring, despite fielding just one senior starter, the Western Albemarle boys varsity tennis team won the Jefferson District and Conference 29 titles and advanced to the semifinals in the regional tournament. For number one seed junior Daniel Thomas the performance left a bitter taste. “In the regional semifinals, we lost to Hidden Valley, which ended up winning the state tournament,” explained head coach Seth Heller, who is in his fourth year. “Most of the matches were tough, grueling, 3-hour faceoffs, where really it could’ve gone either way. Daniel felt we missed a few opportunities that ultimately would’ve led to a win.”

With five of the teams’ six starters returning, and only one rising freshman starter, the WAHS squad remembers well the heartbreaking loss. “The first day of practice I went around the group asking each player to name his goals for the season,” he said. “Every player stated their goal is to win the championship.”

Heller is confident his boys have what it takes to achieve their goals. “Daniel played in the singles and doubles competition at last year’s regionals, so he knows what the pressure is like, as well as what’s required to win at that level,” said Heller. “He felt as a sophomore that he wasn’t ready to handle the pressure and to really put the stamp down on those big matches. He worked extremely hard during the offseason and made huge leaps. Now when he addresses his teammates, you can hear that confidence in his voice; he knows the work it takes to get to the playoffs and how to capitalize on that work once we’re there.”

The bulk of the team put in hours in the offseason honing their competitive chops playing in the USDA tournament circuit or working on taking lessons at prominent area clubs like Farmington or The Boar’s Head.

Thomas has been a starter since he was a freshman (going undefeated that year), and, at six-foot-five, is a big player. His surprising agility allows him to wallop a serve that puts opponents on their heels, as well as cover the court in ways impossible for a smaller player. “He’s a fierce and determined competitor and, when he’s playing his top game and gets close to the net, he’s so big it’s next to impossible to get a shot around him,” said Heller. Thomas played basketball during the winter. “I think that’s benefitted him hugely,” said Heller. “He’s coming into the season stronger than before and in great shape, and that time off has given him a mental break from the pressures of competitive tennis. It has left him sort of chomping at the bit to get back on the courts.”

After losing their number four seed, senior Beau Merhige, the team has received a huge boost from freshmen, particularly their new number two seed, Alex Ix. “Alex is a four-star recruit and, with him filling our number two slot, he’s left us looking stronger than we were last year,” said Heller. At five-foot-two-inches, Ix relies on agility and his ability to read opponents to win. “He has a lot of experience playing on the USDA tournament circuit and has an uncanny knack for reading the body language and positioning of his competitors,” added Heller. “He gets himself into place to control the court and keeps the ball going, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake.”

Adding to the lineup’s depth are number three and four seeds, sophomore Jack Tribble and senior Ben Masselli. Coolheaded and with four years of experience under his belt, Masselli serves as the team’s anchor. “He’s good at not getting rattled,” said Heller. “We rely on him for that and in the last two playoff years he’s had really big matches.” Tribble, who joined the team after moving from Mississippi last year, is the squad’s “Hype Man.” “When he’s having a good day, the energy he brings to the court is just astounding,” said Heller. “Jack was playing with Dan on our top regional double’s team last year. He was constantly pumping Dan up. They were literally screaming at each other and getting just super psyched.”

Throughout the preseason Heller stressed conditioning and strength training. “When the temperature rises to 95, 100 degrees, these 3-hour matches really come down to who has the best endurance,” he said. “That’s why we’ll continue to be in the weight room three days a week. That dedication will pay off in the postseason.”

To nail down the doubles pairings, which follow singles competition and often determine which team wins a meet, is extremely important. “It’s a tricky because you have to couple the right chemistry with the talent to be able to win,” he explained.

Heller said he was confident in his team. “These guys are hard-working athletes and I know they’re going to pull off some amazing things.”

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