Hawks blend experience, youth on courts

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Woodland junior Matt Murphy returns a shot during a scrimmage Monday against Pomperaug High School in Beacon Falls. –LUKE MARSHALL

BEACON FALLS — They share the same tennis courts, but they are two totally different teams — at least on the surface.

The Woodland boys and girls are starting the 2012 season at opposite ends of the spectrum. The former boasts a lineup full of upperclassmen with varsity experience. The latter will rely on underclassmen with hardly any varsity court time.

The boys are coming off an undefeated regular season in which they won their first-ever Naugatuck Valley League championship and three players medaled in the league tournament. More importantly, they return all but one player — last year’s gold medalist, Mike Krakowski.

“We’re not focused on replacing individuals,” boys coach Jim Amato said. “The goal is to get to states. That means we need to win 10 matches. Everyone needs to play competitive at their levels.”

Krakowski, the school’s only gold medalist from either program, was the only senior on the team, leaving a number of quality players from last season to move up in the ranks.

Kyle Beynor, who has never lost a match in two years of NVL play, will assume the No. 1 singles spot as a junior. He, along with Patrick Dietz, won the silver medals of the league doubles tournament last season. They will remain the top doubles unit this year.

“He’ll be continuing his streak into this year,” Amato said of Beynor’s 20-0 career NVL record. “But it will be different continuing as the No. 1 singles player.”

A pleasant surprise for the team in the preseason has been the rise of Jimmy Tompkins to the No. 2 singles spot. He will assume the role after playing at No. 6 singles in 2011.

“Jimmy Tompkins has made incredible strides,” Amato said.

Also helping in singles will be Chris Zmuda, Mike Ventimiglia, Mike Patsiarikas, and potentially others.

“I think a lot of [the success] is going to come down to great bench play,” Amato said. “We’re going to need to pick up some matches at the Nos. 4, 5, and 6 positions.”

The boys have been working hand-in-hand with the girls program, including in practice and conditioning. Girls coach Jess DeGennaro, who is back after two years of maternity leave, said practicing with the defending league champion has benefitted her young team greatly.

“Their energy and their attitude are carrying over to our team,” DeGennaro said. “We need that to translate to give our team success. They’re seeing that the conditioning and attitude the boys used to win a championship last season can really help us this year.”

Eight of the girls’ 10 starters from last season graduated, including singles headliners Meg Wester and Lauren Tremaglio as well as top doubles squad Angela Valillo and Avery Gartman.

The only players with returning varsity experience are senior captain Dayna Chucta, junior captain Liz Martin, and sophomore Rachel Mariano, who has emerged as the new No. 1 singles star.

In fact, the top four singles players are made up exclusively of underclassmen. Joining Mariano are sophomore No. 2 Salma Shitia, freshman No. 3 Jenica Bartlett, and sophomore No. 4 Lauren Tompkins.

DeGennaro thinks Bartlett, in particular, has great upside as a freshman.

“She comes in with a good tennis background,” DeGennaro said. “She’s been playing for a few years so I think she’s going to be a good rookie for us.”

In doubles, Chucta and Martin are likely to start the season as the top team. Jesse Erickson, Sydney Christensen, Emily Rioux, and Ayah Galal will help fill in the rest of the doubles lineup, but the pairings are up in the air.

“I don’t have any doubles partners returning, so for the first few weeks I’m going to be mixing them in,” DeGennaro said. “They’re all at about the same level, so I’m going to try to find some chemistry and get them in different spots.”

Even though the girls are a fairly inexperienced group, DeGennaro is setting lofty goals.

“Because it’s my first year back, I’m actually treating it similarly to how it was when I started in 2005,” DeGennaro said. “We’re holding high expectations in winning the division, the league, and making states. I’ve found setting the goals high makes the team reach higher.”

The boys began the season at Watertown on Wednesday, played Sacred Heart on Thursday, and will face Crosby on Saturday, and are at Torrington on Tuesday. The girls started with St. Paul on Wednesday, were at Watertown on Thursday, before matching up against Seymour on Monday, and against Ansonia on Tuesday.