By John Goralski
Two years ago, Tony Mauro talked about potential when his freshmen phenoms battled to a 7-9 record in the spring. Last spring, the tennis coach talked about turning the corner when the sophomores broke .500 with an 11-8 record.
Now comes the harvest.
“You never want to count your chickens before they hatch, but .800 sounds reasonable,” Mauro said with a sly grin. “This will be the third year that we’ve been developing this particular team. The first year, I could see the talent. Last year, I thought we were right on target. Naturally, I expect us to step up even further this year. We are very close to where I think we should be.”
The boys tennis team has come a long way since Mauro took the helm in 2007, but it hasn’t come easy. There was a focus on fundamentals that led to a 15-3 record in his fourth season. There was a consistency that developed when his second class of seniors rallied for 12 wins the following year.
But when graduation depleted the roster, Mauro rolled up his sleeves and jumped in. With a back-to-basics approach and a group of underclassmen that continued to play long after the season finale, the Knights began to rebuild. This spring, Mauro expects that commitment to pay off as the Knights establish themselves as a legitimate power.
Conference rivals like Hall or Simsbury have a long history of year-round players, but Mauro said that his team is ready to join that elite list. The year round tennis movement that is starting to gain momentum.
“When I first took over the team, we had only one kid that played in the winter, and they used to call him ‘Rocky’ because he played all year,” said Mauro. “Now, we have 13 or 14 that have a passion for the game, and that really helps a lot. I don’t really have to do much. Sometimes, I feel like all I have to do is get out of their way.”
Mauro will look to senior co-captains Chris Hupper and Nate Mullins to continue to lead the juniors into the realm of upperclassmen. Mullins is the leader on the court, one of the battle-hardened singles players fighting for the top spot. Hupper is the organizer, anchoring the doubles play and providing the line of communication between the coaches and players. Together, they’ve helped forge a solid team from top to bottom.
“I like the fact that we have two different types of captains,” said Mauro. “They have different strengths, and when you put them together it works.”
That’s been the recipe for turning a group of individuals into a battle-hardened team, and this year’s Knights are stronger than ever before. Mullins will battle junior singles player Kunal Kataria for the top spot in the rotation, but they’ll be challenged by one of the strongest groups of individuals to hit the Southington courts.
Zaya Oshana, Luke Pfanzelt, Grant Ogrin, Alex Angelillo, Will Lefkovich, and Hupper will each have a shot at the final two singles spots, and the rest will anchor the Knights at doubles. Each one has varsity experience. As a group, they went 67-28 last spring. Mauro’s biggest challenge will be to find the right combination for his opening day roster.
“I’m thrilled because I’ve never had this kind of depth,” said the coach. “It’s exciting. They are all good high school tennis players. They might not be all-state level players, but they are all good. We definitely have more options this year than we’ve ever had. Our top six or eight people could basically play anywhere, so right now we’re just trying to figure out where everyone matches up.”
Getting off to a fast start will be key as Southington tries to overwhelm a good list of non-conference rivals in April. Things will get tougher in May as the Knights enter the conference schedule that continues to get more and more difficult as the month progresses.
The non-conference bout against Manchester on May 9 will kick off the biggest regular season test for the Knights.
“Manchester always plays us so strong when they face us that I use them as a benchmark,” said Mauro. “Then we have all those perennial powerhouses—and even with those—I think we can better. Simsbury’s coming back with their entire team. Hall speaks for itself because they have 50 kids and 22 seniors, and I barely have 22 guys on my team…On the other hand, that doesn’t speak to their quality.”
Southington doesn’t have a weak spot in their roster. With so many interchangeable pieces, they should be able to match up to any team’s strengths. When a team is heavy at singles, Southington can counter with their doubles. When a team has depth, the Knights can rely upon their top guns.
“We have enormous depth because of the number of people that we have fighting for that No. 4 singles and No. 3 doubles,” said Mauro. “That’s why I have trouble telling you what our weakness is right now. I’m just trying to put each guy in the right place. That’s a good think to have going for me as a coach. The competition is so intense, but they’re still doing it in the parameters of sportsmanship. That’s the part I like the best.”
So bring on the competition. Southington is ready to battle.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.