For the past three years, the 3A boys tennis state tournament has ended with a match-up between Hidden Valley and Blacksburg, because for the past three years, one of those two teams has knocked Western Albemarle out in the semi-finals. But this year, things were different. This year, the Warriors didn’t just make it to the finals. This year, they won.
The finals, held at Salem Civic Center on Saturday, June 10, had been the goal for a long time. The team knew it had the potential to be state champion, as their play in the regular season proved. They came into the final match of the year with a record of 21-1, their only loss coming at the hands of Woodberry Forest in late April. After that loss, which came amid a tough stretch of fierce competition, the team changed their line-up for doubles and re-committed themselves to a single, common goal: get through Hidden Valley and Blacksburg, win the state title.
The post-season shaped up exactly as expected. The Warriors met Hidden Valley in the conference semi-finals, ending the Titans’ 39-game win streak, and avenging a loss to them in a scrimmage earlier in the season. They then faced Blacksburg in the conference championship and won again. But those wins, while fortifying, weren’t the goal. The goal was still to get through these teams to win not merely the conference, but the state.
That mission propelled the Western boys as they dispatched Riverside in the state semi-finals, winning 5-0 on their home courts, and headed to the state finals for the first time since 2012. As predicted, they’d face Blacksburg yet again.
The big day didn’t start auspiciously. After the top four singles matches wrapped up, Western trailed the Bruins 3-1, their one win coming courtesy of freshman Alex Ix at the No. 2 position. Western’s No. 5, junior Nicholas Hagspiel, and No. 6, sophomore Simon Rader, took the courts for their matches knowing that they had to win to give their team a chance at the victory going into doubles. Hagspiel, who couldn’t play due to injury in the conference contest with Blacksburg, delivered now, winning in straight sets. Rader did too, completing his perfect streak in the post-season. Thanks to these singles wins, the Warriors went into doubles play tied with the Bruins. Coach Seth Heller, in his fourth year with the team, said that splitting the singles didn’t worry them. In fact, it assured them: “We knew that singles would be a toss up and if we could split singles we would be able to overpower any team if it came down to doubles.”
Heller was right. The No. 1 doubles pair, made up of Ix and junior Daniel Thomas, the team’s No. 1, won 6-0, 6-3. At the No. 2 doubles spot, Hagspiel won a set with his partner, Ben Masselli, the team’s No. 4 man and its only starting senior. The match that clinched the win came in the No. 3 doubles spot, where Rader and his partner, sophomore Jack Tribble, the team’s No. 3, defeated their opponents 6-1, 6-2. Western came home with the title.
The win may harbinger a resurgence of the Western boys tennis dynasty, which reigned supreme for the better part of a decade, appearing in six straight state finals and winning most recently in 2012. Coach Heller says that this year’s squad is “an echo of past great teams,” which featured older brothers or playing partners of some of this year’s boys. But because this year’s team is so young, central Virginia can look forward to hearing their echo for years to come.