Girls' tennis preview

Handley and Sherando seem to be volleying back-and-forth the girls’ tennis supremacy in the Class 4 Northwestern District and excellence at the state level.

Two years ago, it was the Warriors who ruled the district and the region and advanced all of the way to the Class 4 state finals before falling to Hanover. Last year, the Judges did the same thing with an unbeaten season before falling to Hanover 5-2.

This season, it could be Sherando’s or maybe another team’s turn, since many of the area’s best players have graduated or gone elsewhere.

Handley certainly was hit hard, losing Meredith Watts, the team’s No. 1 player for four years and a two-time Winchester Star Player of the Year. Ava Lewis, unbeaten at No. 3 as a freshman, transferred to Pennsylvania, and Maggie Wise, unbeaten at No. 4 and No. 6, graduated.

Sherando, a regional semifinalist, lost two players out of its starting six, including No. 1 Kathryn Robertson who was a state semifinalist in doubles.

Millbrook graduated two-time Winchester Star Player of the Year Cecilia Cress, who advanced to the Class 4 singles semifinals in 2017 and was state runner-up last season.

Though the Warriors lost Robertson and No. 4 Kaitlyn Duncan, they may be the team to beat.

Sherando is off to a 4-0 start, including a 9-0 sweep against the Judges on Tuesday and a 9-0 triumph against James Wood. Sherando players are 35-1 so far this season.

Alexa Venturato, who teamed with Robertson to make the state doubles final, has played the top singles spot for the Warriors before and is back at No. 1 this season.

With many young players, Sherando coach Trevor Johnson said having someone with Venturato’s experience helps his team.

“It’s really beneficial for the kids to watch her play because she knows most of the strokes and you can see she’s thinking through points,” he said. “Especially for the young kids, that’s the big thing that I try to get them to understand is that you’re not just out there reacting.

“You need to be proactive, think about what you’re doing and try to build points. So many will react to what’s going on and I want them to think, ‘Where am I going? Cross court or down the line. Oh, she’s at the net, am I going to lob it?’ I’m trying to get them to think on the court and it’s nice when they can watch someone who has experience like that play.”

Behind Venturato, the Warriors’ lineup could change from its current stack of No. 2 Emily Loy, No. 3 Maddy Woolever and No. 4 Addy Gannon. All three players return from last season. Loy, a sophomore, has made the biggest jump from No. 5 to the No. 2 slot. Woolever, a junior, played at No. 3 last season and Gannon, a sophomore, was No. 6 last season.

“Nos. 2-4 have really improved,” Johnson said. “I think any of those could be No. 2. Just through the challenge system, Loy is No. 2. … I’ll have a challenge [today] and it could change.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You put it together and hopefully by the end of the season it should be a picture.”

Newcomers Kate Sommerfeld (No. 5) and Ashley Happel (No. 6) currently round out the singles lineup, but Kloe Thomas, Amelia Sacco, Nicole Duncan, Lea Blevins are fighting to move up.

Johnson has experimented with doubles combinations but right now the teams are No. 1 Venturato-Woolever, No. 2 Loy-Sommerfeld and No. 3 Gannon-Happel.

Handley certainly will have many new faces on the court. Senior Lillian Smith, who played No. 2 last season, and junior Meredith Larsen, No. 5, are the only singles returnees for the Judges, who won their first 22 matches before falling to Hanover in Salem.

Despite massive changes, Handley coach Martha Johnson said her team is doing well.

“I thought it would be much harder,” Johnson said during the preseason. “We have several brand new girls, but the girls that have played — and some of them have played two or three years before this year — they act like it’s their turn. They don’t think we’ve missed a beat at all. I like their confidence.”

Smith had an excellent season for the Judges last spring, going 18-3 in singles and 14-4 at No. 1 doubles with Watts.

“She’s a fantastic leader,” Johnson said. “... Her game is good. I think she is one of those annoying people who can play really well and not have weeks and weeks of lessons. … It seems to come naturally for her.”

Larsen is at No. 2, followed by juniors Samantha Thomas, Laurel Tucker, Michaela Logan, and Katherine McIntyre. Thomas and Tucker were part of the team last season, while Logan and McIntyre are returning after a year out of the program.

Smith-Larsen, Thomas-Tucker and Logan-McIntyre are the top doubles combinations. Freshman Anne Marie Larsen could work into the lineup, too.

Johnson believes the Judges, who were without Smith and Thomas in the loss to Sherando on Tuesday, have a shot at defending their district title.

“I’m hoping that we’re strong enough as a team and we grow as a team because they’ve already improved in the week or two that we’ve seen them,” she said before the season. “We can be strong contenders. It’s going to be a fun ride.”

James Wood (currently 2-1) returns a good portion of its lineup, including No. 1 singles and double player Lily Kimble.

Coach Sharon Sweet says the Colonels have also gotten a big lift with the return of No. 2 Morgan Burner, who went down with an injury last season.

“Just having her back on the team this year has been a wonderful addition,” said Sweet of Burner, who will play at No. 1 doubles with Kimble. “Because of a major injury and from surgery last year, she was out most of the season. Filling that void in not just her number but the role she plays and the positive impact she has on the team, coming into the season I was really excited to have her back.”

Those two seniors will be joined in the lineup by two more seniors Katelyn Harris and Alyssa Aycock. Newcomers Caroline Partlow, a freshman, and Maggie Utz, a sophomore, have cracked the lineup, but the Colonels also have junior Savannah Keller and sophomore Lauren Klubertanz who saw action last season.

Sweet, who did lose returning starter Taylin Crosen to injury, said the competition in practice is at a high level.

“There’s this drive to be in the Top 6 which I love seeing,” she said. “We have a little bit more depth to work with than we did last year which is really nice, but we definitely have girls who want to be in that Top 6. It’s friendly competition, but they want to play and be successful.”

Millbrook (currently 2-1) not only lost Cress, but also three other starters from last season’s lineup.

First-year coach Jenny Beasley has gotten a boost from a new source. Volleyball standout Tori Johnson has joined the team and the junior has vaulted to the No. 1 spot on the team in singles and doubles.

“She’s actually been playing tennis she was 5,” Beasley said of Johnson. “She is an incredible athlete. She’s got a great serve. She hits really hard and she’s got great footwork.”

Behind Johnson are junior Audrey Hoffman, freshman Amanda Dalton, junior Stephanie Smith, junior Kylee Kennerly and senior Olivia Escalante.

The teams of Johnson-Dalton, Hoffman-Smith head the doubles teams, with various combinations seeing time at No. 3.

Beasley said things are going well as she settles in as coach.

“I feel like it’s been a good transition,” she said. “I love being back on the courts and hitting with the girls, getting to know them and working with them. I’m just looking to grow and learn this year.”

Clarke County (currently 1-3) returns its entire roster from last season, but has been beset early in the season by injuries.

Seniors Aaliyah McFarland, Barbara Fairbanks and junior Julia Callender have played the top three singles spots this season. Junior Reagan Johnson, sophomore Kandis Aiyeman, junior Kaitlyn Spitler and senior Heather Elsea have played at either singles or doubles. Experienced players Maria Vinson, Anne Herndon and Katie Crandall have been out of the lineup at the start of the season.

Clarke County coach Ted Schulhof likes his team and its work ethic.

“By and large, they are positive, upbeat and a willing-to-work bunch,” Schulhof said. “We have a good time and our tennis is getting better.”

Though his team is improving, Schulhof expects the sledding to be tough in the Bull Run District.

“The district will remain a challenge because we were 0-4 against [George] Mason and Central last year and I don’t think they really lost anybody,” he said. “I think we’re going to have our work cut out for us to get past them and get into regionals.”

Sherando

Coach: Trevor Johnson, 10th season

Last year: 16-4 overall, 10-2 Class 4 Northwestern District. Region 4C semifinalist, Northwestern District runner-up

Key losses: Kathryn Robertson, Kaitlyn Duncan

Key returnees: Alexa Venturato, Sr.; Emily Loy, So.; Maddy Woolever, Jr.; Addy Gannon, So.

Top newcomers: Katie Sommerfeld, Sr., Kloe Thomas, So.; Amelia Sacco, Jr.; Nicole Duncan, So., Lea Blevins, Fr.

Johnson’s outlook: “I expect them to battle. I expect them to maybe be in contention. You’ve got to feel it out and you’ve got to see other teams in the district and see what they have. We’re a solid team.”

Next match: Sherando at Millbrook, Friday

Handley

Coach: Martha Johnson, seventh season

Last year: 22-1, 12-0 Class 4 Northwestern District. Class 4 state runner-up, Region 4C champion, Northwestern District champion

Key losses: Meredith Watts, Maggie Wise, Ava Lewis, Cat Love.

Top returning players: Lillian Smith, Sr., Meredith Larsen, Jr.; Samantha Thomas, Jr.; Laurel Tucker, Jr.

Top newcomers: Michaela Logan, Jr.; Katherine McIntyre, Jr.; Anne Marie Larsen, Fr.

Johnson’s outlook: “I think we’re really good this year. I don’t know what kind of surprises can lay in front of us. I don’t know much about how everybody else is showing up for the season in our district. … We still have the bulls-eye on our back and we still want to beat everyone. Until we go the first round and see how everybody has done, then we’ll have to figure that out. “

Next match: Skyline at Handley, today

James Wood

Coach: Sharon Sweet, ninth season

Last year: 4-12 overall, 2-10 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Carley Pennington, Taylin Crosen

Top returning players: Lily Kimble, Jr.; Morgan Burner, Sr.; Katelyn Harris, Sr.; Alyssa Aycock, Sr.; Savannah Keller, Jr.; Lauren Klubertanz, So.

Top newcomers: Caroline Partlow, Fr.; Maggie Utz, So.

Sweet’s outlook: “I think our main goal of this season is consistency. It’s trying to work with the girls and obviously develop their game. Really from No. 1 to No. 6, the word I’m using with them is consistency. We are not top heavy where we are just banking on No. 1 and No. 2. I think we can rely on players No. 1 through No. 6 to contribute points in singles or doubles. I’m really excited about this season.”

Next match: Warren County at James Wood, Friday

Millbrook

Coach: Jenny Beasley, first season

Last year: 11-7 overall, 6-6 Class 4 Northwestern District

Key losses: Cecilia Cress, Shanna Marin-Pierce, Cristina Gutilla, Zoe Ackerman

Top returning players: Audrey Hoffman, Jr.; Olivia Escalante, Sr.; Stephanie Smith, Jr.; Kylee Kennerly, Jr.; Tiffany Cheung, So.

Top newcomers: Amanda Dalton, Fr.; Tori Johnson, Jr.

Beasley’s outlook: “I think the team is looking good. We have several returners and we also have some promising newcomers. I think our girls will be competitive. We’ve got a lot great athletes and a lot of girls who have been playing for a while. I think they’re looking to go out and be competitive and win.”

Next match: Clarke County at Millbrook, today

Clarke County

Coach: Ted Schulhof, 12th season

Last year: 5-11, 0-4 Bull Run District

Key losses: None

Top returning players: Aaliyah McFarland, Sr.; Maria Vinson, Sr.; Anne Herndon, Sr.; Katie Crandall, Jr.; Barbara Fairbanks, Jr.; Julia Callender, Jr.; Reagan Johnson, Jr.

Top newcomers: Kandis Aiyeman, So.

Schulhof’s outlook: “The outlook for this season is positive. Most of the kids are returning starters. We’re upbeat. They’ve worked in the offseason. A number of them are taking lessons and playing not just in the spring which is what it takes to improve.”

Next match: Clarke County at Millbrook, today

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