By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
BEACON FALLS — From spooked-out wildlife to cool as a cucumber, Woodland girls tennis coach Jess DeGennaro saw plenty of growth in her young squad during the first half of the season.
With eight of the Hawks’ 10 starting players entering this season with no previous tennis experience, DeGennaro knew there would be a learning curve. With a 6-5 record a little more than halfway through the regular season, she’s seen her athletes’ confidence multiply.
“The first couple of matches, it was deer-caught-in-headlights, get-me-out-of-here stuff,” DeGennaro said. “Their confidence has grown and they’re starting to enjoy playing.”
Woodland reeled off five straight wins after losing its first two matches. The highlight of the season so far was April 28 when the Hawks edged Seymour, 4-3, to improve to 5-2 on the year.
Three straight losses against league championship contenders Holy Cross, Naugatuck and Watertown brought the team back to reality, though. Still, DeGennaro sees value in having her squad compete against the league’s best.
“I want them to see the strongest teams in the league — not to look at it as a loss, but to look at it like this is how the best teams play,” DeGennaro said. “I want them to see that they have to put in the work and the conditioning and maybe take some offseason lessons.”
The Hawks stopped the skid with a 6-1 win against St. Paul on May 7.
Woodland’s roster includes four seniors — Olivia Vallejo, Kayleigh Huk, Autym Dahlman and Samantha Erickson — but the Hawks’ singles lineup includes sophomore Audrey Fencil at No. 1, Erickson at No. 2, and freshmen Bella Mastropietro and Yasmeen Galal at Nos. 3 and 4.
Vallejo and junior Brooke Reilly have been successful at No. 1 doubles as the only players who returned to this team with previous varsity experience. Huk and Dahlman have played at No. 3 doubles, while Meghan Ruhl and Cori Patchkofski have recently held the No. 2 doubles spot.
“The nice thing with a small, young team is that they’re getting a lot of experience,” DeGennaro said. “You’re seeing improvement every time they hit the court. They’re getting stronger physically and mentally, and they’re enjoying the game. I’ve been telling them that this is just the start of their tennis career, so don’t just focus on this year.”
DeGennaro is hopeful that Vallejo and Reilly can make a deep run in this month’s Naugatuck Valley League doubles tournament.
“They look strong. For them, it’s about consistency,” DeGennaro said. “They have the skill and they know the level they can play at, so if they get more consistent, they have a shot to be at the end of the NVL tournament.”
Fencil, who recently picked up the sport, has impressed the coach with her work ethic.
“She’s never played before, but she’s come a long way,” DeGennaro said. “You can see that she’s going to have a good career. She’ll stay after practice and serve for an hour by herself with the ball hopper.”
The Hawks have four matches left on the schedule and are set to close out the regular season May 14 against Seymour and May 17 at Crosby, followed by the league’s team and individual tournaments.