Answering the conference call: Girls tennis is poised for another run at a CCC banner

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By BRIAN JENNINGS
STAFF WRITER

The Lady Knights completed last year’s regular season with a 17-1 record (6-1 in division), sharing the CCC West title with Farmington (12-1, 6-1) and NW Catholic (14-2, 6-1) and putting a conference banner up in the high school’s gymnasium for the first time in the program’s history. The Knights’ only loss came to NW Catholic, 4-3.

Southington head coach Robin Thompson said that depth and experience played a large part in the team’s success.

“We had a lot of returners and only graduated one from the year before,” said Thompson. “We didn’t have a lot of slots to fill. And the girls were on a mission, knowing that our division makeup was going to be different this year. This was a good opportunity to get a conference banner.”

Southington qualified for the Class L state tournament as the third-seed, but fell short to No.14 New Canaan (11-5), 6-1, at home in the first round. But even though Southington had an early exit in the state tournament, the Knights still sent six players (2 singles, 2 doubles) to the state open. The No.1 doubles team of Cassidy Race and Rianna Susco made the deepest run out of any Southington players, advancing to the third round.

Thompson said that the team has learned more every year about being better competitors, and that should carry over into this spring. The kids are buying into Thompson’s mental approach.

“We’re giving them more strategy and are trying to throw them into different situations in practice that they might face in real matches,” she said. “It’s realizing that you’re always going to have different kinds of opponents that bring different kinds of qualities to the match, but there’s never a cookie-cutter approach in tennis.”

The Knights graduated six players from last year’s team, all of which played a role in the starting varsity lineup, but the team returns 10 girls with varsity experience from last year’s team.

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Senior Angela Balaoing went 17-1 at No.2 singles, losing her only match in three sets, but she also stepped up to No. 1 singles for the first four matches of the season, which all resulted in wins. Balaoing will look to lead the Knights this season by returning to familiar territory—at No.1 singles.

“I think she’ll have a really strong season and has a strong shot to go to the state open,” said Thompson. “For a lefty, when her serve’s on, it’s probably her most powerful weapon.”

Senior Natalia Gimenez went 14-3 at No.4 singles, with four games at No. 3. This year, Gimenez will move up a spot to No. 2 singles.

“She’s playing two singles right behind Angela, so that’s a little bit of a lead,” the coach said. “But she’s got a pretty solid, all-around game. She defended that position from our No.3 player and is a lock-on for that position. She’s a hard worker.”

Thompson named Balaoing and Gimenez as the team captains and said that their leadership qualities, work during the offseason, and passion for the game made it an easy selection.

“They’re good leaders and great kids,” the coach said. “Other kids respect them and they’re excellent role models.”

The final two singles positions will be filled by two girls that played intermittently in the varsity lineup last year, but Thompson said she is very proud of the fact that they have accepted those roles. Junior Kristen Mathew went 2-0 in doubles play last year. Junior Abby Roy went 3-1 at No. 3 singles over the first four matches of last season and 5-0 as a doubles player with various partners. Both will make the move to regular singles play.

Seniors Sam Lohneiss and Kayla Kavanagh went 11-2 as a pair at No.2 doubles last year, but will anchor the Knights at No.1 doubles this season. Their leadership will be key as the Knights welcome a number of new players at doubles.

Thompson said a big key will be how the newcomers handle being in the lineup. Sophomores Carolyn Callahan, Molly Murphy, Samantha Barmore, and Coral Tommervik will figure prominently at doubles. Sophomore Tiana Perez will also look to make an impact on the varsity roster.

“The girls new to the lineup have invested a lot of time and effort in the offseason,” said Thompson. “They recognized that graduating five seniors from the year before was an opportunity and also a challenge for them in the same breath. They didn’t just relax though. They worked hard to be worthy of the positions they’re playing.”

Another key will be how the Knights compete against their new conference opponents that they have for this upcoming season. Avon will join Conard, Hall, Simsbury, and Glastonbury to give the Knights everything they can handle in conference play.

“I think we’ve got the toughest draw, as far as the CCC is concerned,” the coach said.

As the season opens, only one thing is certain: every spot on the varsity lineup, singles and doubles, features a new player. Thompson said that her team has to be able to handle the different scenarios they are going to face if her fifth season is going to continue to build this up and coming program.

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