Veteran Tide tennis teams have eyes on the playoffs
Concord High School 's Justin Toler serves the ball during a match against Pinkerton in the boys' division I quarterfinals on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
Concord's Gabriella Killinger serves the ball in her No. 1 singles match during the Concord girls' tennis home opener against Nashua North on April 5, 2013 at Memorial Field.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
One team is coming off back-to-back 14-2, semifinal seasons. The other team was 5-9 last year and will be trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. But when the Concord High boys’ and girls’ tennis teams open their seasons today, there will be a lot of familiar faces on the courts, as both Crimson Tide squads return five of their six starters from a year ago.
The Concord boys, who have lost to Exeter in the Division I semifinals the last two years, are grateful for their returning starters for a number of reasons. Not only should that experience serve the Tide well as it tries to win its first title since 2007, but it will serve as a guideline for the team’s ladder when Concord travels to Dover for today’s season opener.
“I really wanted to wait until we were outdoors to play our challenge matches, and we haven’t been outdoors at all,” said Dave Page, now in his 10th year as Concord’s head coach. “We’ve gotten three days on one indoor court, but this is the first time I can remember in all my years coaching that we’re going into an opener not having played on an outdoor court.”
With all of the snow this winter, most tennis teams around the state are in a similar predicament. But even if the more southern D-I schools have the advantage of some outdoor time, the Tide should be able to gain a bit of traction with a favorable opening schedule. Concord’s first five opponents were a combined 28-44 last year and only one of them, Londonderry, made the playoffs.
Those first five matches will also give the Tide players time to adjust to their new places on the ladder. Even though Concord lost just one from last year’s top six, that one was No. 1 Greg Cistulli, one of the top players in the state.
“Losing a quality number one is really more like losing two or three guys,” Page said. “You lose his wins and everybody else has to move up.”
Sophomore Justin Toler will make the move into the No. 1 spot. Competing in USTA age-group tournaments has provided Toler with plenty of pressurized experience, but he also gained some valuable high school experience last year playing No. 2 singles and first doubles for the Tide, making a run to the semifinals of the state doubles tournament with Cistulli.
“I think Justin will be more consistent this year and he’s definitely got the game to be one of the top players in the state, there’s no doubt about that,” Page said. “Sometimes he can be his own worst enemy on the court, but I think he recognizes that and he’s working on adjusting it, but that’s a process.”
Evan Hewey played No. 6 as a sophomore, moved up to No. 3 last year and will start this season as Concord’s No. 2 player. In addition to all that experience, Hewey improved his offensive game and competitive edge as last season progressed, two developments that should serve him well this year. Like Hewey, senior Josh Pifer will be playing in the top six for a third straight year. He was No. 5 as a sophomore, No. 4 last year and will be No. 3 in today’s opener. Pifer has a powerful forehand and a big serve, and some good skills off the court, as well.
“Josh has really shown a lot of great leadership so far,” Page said. “He’s the returning captain, so we expected that, but he’s done a real good job in that area.”
Thomas Bengtson, an athletic junior, played over the winter and should be in for a good season as he moves from No. 5 to No. 4. Junior Mattias Lambert had some big wins for Concord last year at No. 6, but he’ll miss the first part of this season as he recovers from a knee injury. Luckily for Concord, the Nos. 7 and 8 players from last year, seniors Liam Healy and Adi Ghandi, also are back and will provide the Tide with great depth and competition on the bottom half of the ladder. Freshmen Aidan Connor and Adam Bryant will add to that depth, as well.
“If our kids work hard every day in practice, stay hungry and improve their ability to deal with and respond to adversity, we have a chance to be a better team than we were last year,” Page said.
Greg Coache, who is in his sixth year as the Concord girls’ coach, has little doubt that his team will be better than last year’s version that went 5-9.
“I’m really pumped how things have started this year and the way the girls are hitting the ball,” Coache said. “I want to get to the playoffs this year and I really think we should be able to do that.”
The Tide girls had been raising money over the last year so they could play indoors as needed, and that proved to be useful this spring.
“We’ve been playing a ton, so we established a good base for our ladder and we’ve been working on our doubles teams,” Coache said.
Junior Gabby Killinger will be back at the No. 1 spot this year for the Tide. Killinger is a year-round player who hits with good power and topspin off both sides, isn’t afraid to attack the net to finish points, and knows what it takes to win at the top of the ladder.
There’s no question about Killinger’s place at No. 1, but the rest of the Tide ladder will be more fluid early in the season. The team had challenge matches last night at the Goffstown YMCA to help determine today’s lineup for the home match against Derryfield.
“I wouldn’t say they’re interchangeable, but I feel like the top eight players are all good, so we have a lot to work with,” Coache said. “We’ll have some players outside the top six who really should be varsity players, and we really haven’t had that in recent years.”
The Tide’s other returning starters from last year (Emily Zimnoski, who played at No. 2, was the only loss) are Meg Olive, Skye Reese, Irene Ireme and Kristine Pederson, and all four of them have improved games that should help them take a step up the ladder. Newcomers Colleen Casey, Alexandra Killinger and Becky Cistulli also are vying for top-six spots and will give Concord the kind of depth teams need to reach the playoffs.
“All the girls are taking it seriously right now; I love the attitudes,” Coache said. “We want to rejuvenate Concord girls’ tennis this year.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)