Change to boys tennis format offers postseason feel

Naugatuck’s Chris Cook lines up a shot during a match with Woodland’s Josh Powanda April 10 at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Five players on a basketball court. Nine players on the diamond. Eleven players on a football field or pitch. None of that has changed in, well, pretty much ever.

And while nothing has changed about the number of players allowed on a Naugatuck Valley League boys tennis court this spring, the number needed to earn a team victory this season is more than it’s ever been.

The NVL changed its meet format this spring to align itself with the formats used in most other leagues and the postseason. Regular-season meets this year on the boys side feature three singles matches and two doubles matches played in a two-set format.

While there are fewer overall matches than there were in the old format, which utilized six singles and three doubles matches played in single sets to eight points, this season’s layout requires seven players to complete a lineup. Under the old setup, many teams settled with allowing the same six players to compete in both singles and doubles.

Woodland coach Mike Magas said there are pros and cons to the switch.

“(In the past) the top players got to play singles and doubles, and it would give them a better feel for what road they’d like to travel in the postseason,” Magas said. “With the format we have now, they can still have that possibility, but if you’re going to play throughout the regular season, you can’t play both (in the same meet).”

Having said that, Magas says he still prefers the new format.

“It allows kids to get a feel for what the tournament format is like,” he said. “In the past, our kids would get to the semifinals or finals of an NVL tournament and they were gassed. Now it allows them to understand the grind it takes.”

Both Woodland and Naugatuck enjoyed high turnouts at tryouts this spring, which allowed for an easier transition to the new format with quality preseason competition for seeds. Greyhounds coach Brett Hayward utilized an intra-squad tournament to determine his singles and doubles rankings.

“It’s a little bit easier than it is for something like basketball,” Hayward said. “The top three players in that singles tournament are our top three singles players, and then it’s about figuring out your doubles matchups.”

With 17 players on the team, that preseason tournament took about four practice days to complete. Chris Cook, Jared Montini and Jay Mezzo claimed Naugy’s top three singles spots and led the Greyhounds to a 5-1 start to the season.

Hayward said the plan is to allow players to challenge others seeded directly higher to move up in the rankings. The competition encouraged by the new format has paid dividends for the whole team, Hayward noted.

“I have to give all the credit to the players,” Hayward said. “The experienced guys are helping with the younger guys. Guys are showing up before practice and stay after practice on their own. These guys are eating, sleeping and breathing tennis right now and it shows.”

Magas said he plans on feeling out the possibilities for different matchups in his singles and doubles lineup. Josh Powanda is locked in at No. 1 singles and has barely been challenged in the early part of the league schedule, but other spots could change.

“It’ll be about matchups — where will our matchups favor us the most?” Magas said. “We know who our No. 1 singles player is, but some of the guys who are playing singles now might move to doubles and vice versa. I’m going to make some changes over the next couple of weeks based on where they feel comfortable and how they benefit the team.”

One consideration the coach takes is whether each player seems to work better with a partner on the court or by himself.

Woodland’s Josh Powanda returns a shot during a match with Naugatuck’s Chris Cook April 10 at Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

“I look from the doubles point of view first,” Magas said. “Can this player work well with someone on the same side of the court? Some of the guys we have playing doubles now have that ability. Communication is key — not getting frustrated with your teammate if he hits a bad shot. Some players are more comfortable being on the court by themselves. Josh could play doubles, but right now he’s one of the top players in the league at singles.”

Hayward noted that some players have different on-court strengths that might make them more suited for singles or doubles play.

“Our top three singles players really do a good job of using the whole court,” Hayward said. “The doubles players match up with who’s pretty good at net and who’s strong on the baseline.”

Another reason why coaches like this year’s match format is the tiebreaker system. If players split the first two sets, which are played in the traditional six-game format, then they play a super tiebreaker to 10 points.

Magas and Hayward agree that this format will help prepare players for the NVL and state tournaments. Each team is allowed to enter two singles players and two doubles teams into the NVL individual tournaments, and they get to add a third singles player for states.

“We’ve been put in a lot of situations to get us prepared for the postseason,” Hayward said. “For example, we’ve had a lot of tiebreakers. Almost all of our matches, there’s been at least one super tiebreaker. That experience for the postseason will help. It’s not about shutting out everyone. It’s about building and grinding it out.”