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Concord tennis teams restocking to make runs at the postseason

The Concord High boys’ tennis team lost a total of six seniors from last year’s 14-2 semifinal team, including three from the top six – Nos. 2, 3 and 4. The Crimson Tide has replaced that departed starting trio with two sophomores and a freshman, a move that will cost Concord some experience but might help its hunger.

“There’s a different team atmosphere without so many seniors, but in my experience the lower classmen work harder than the seniors,” said Josh Pifer, a junior captain for the Tide. “The seniors are ready to go off to college and they can lose that will to win, but I think with a younger team we’ll have a stronger will.”

Concord’s only senior is Greg Cistulli, an all-court talent who reached the state singles quarterfinals last year and is back at No. 1 for the Tide. Pifer isn’t worried about the will to win for Cistulli, Concord’s co-captain who is planning on playing college tennis.

“Greg is not slacking off,” Pifer said.

In fact, Cistulli’s work ethic will be crucial for the young Tide.

“Greg has shown some leadership this year, which we need him to do,” said Dave Page, now in his ninth year as Concord’s coach. “He’s going to be tested by some of the top players in the division who are also on some of the stronger teams, Harrison Max from Londonderry and McKinley Grimes from Bedford. So we need a consistent effort out of Greg every day to really set the example for the other kids, and he’s made strides in that area.”

After preseason challenge matches that took place both inside and outside, freshman Justin Toler has earned the No. 2 ladder spot for today’s season opener against Dover (0-14 last year). While Toler is new to the high school game, he’s been playing in USTA youth events for years and he’s the son of a coach, former Bow Coach Todd Toler, who is now an assistant on the Concord staff along with P.J. Cistulli, Greg’s father.

“Justin has been impressive,” Page said. “He’s got all the shots and he’s a polished player. Any time you get a freshman coming in like that, it’s a real bonus. A lot of times we’ve been developing kids as they go along.”

Junior Even Hewey, who played at No. 6 last year, has made the jump up to No. 3. Hewey is a consistent player with good size who will need to use all his tools to earn wins in the top half of the ladder. Sophomore Thomas Bengtson will open the season at No. 4. He made it up to No. 7 on the ladder last season and saw some varsity time as a fill-in.

“(Bengtson) is a kid that’s athletic and he’s a competitor, he’s got some fire in him,” Page said. “We’re working on staying positive and not getting tight in matches, but he’s got a high ceiling, he really does.”

Pifer is back in the same spot he spent most of 2012, No. 5. While he’s less nervous than he was before last season, his first as a varsity player, Pifer still has some worries about finding his tennis groove after skiing in the winter and golfing in the fall.

“I have the experience now, I don’t have to worry about that, but I just have to get my strokes back,” Pifer said. “Once I do that, I think I’ll be able to get in there and start winning some matches.”

Sophomore Mattias Lambert rounds out the ladder at No. 6.

“Mattias is a steady player and strategically smart,” Page said. “I think he’s going to be a strong number six.”

Concord will get a chance to see how strong it is overall in the fourth match of the season, April 8 at Londonderry. The defending-champion Lancers bring back the entire top six from last year’s undefeated team. Bedford may have lost two-time state singles champion Mark HoSang from last year’s D-II title team, but the Bulldogs still have Grimes (who beat Cistulli in a quarterfinal tiebreaker last spring) and they will be contenders as they move up to D-I this season. And Exeter, the team that beat Concord in the 2012 semifinals, will be strong again with five of its top six back.

“Londonderry, Bedford and Exeter are a cut above everybody else at this point,” Page said. “I think our team has a lot of upside … but the difference between us and the top teams right now is consistency. The real strong teams bring their best game on a regular basis, whereas we’ve shown flashes of that but we need to make them more regular.”

∎ Like the boys, the Concord girls’ tennis team lost three seniors from last year’s starting six and has just one senior on the current roster. Unlike the boys, who have been to two semifinals and two quarterfinals in the last four years, the Tide girls are trying to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010, when they got in as a No. 8 seed.

“My goal is to make the playoffs, but we’ll see how it goes,” said Greg Coache, who is starting his fifth season as the Tide’s head coach.

Making the move from last year’s 6-8 mark into a top-eight spot in D-I will take some work, but work sites have been scarce for Concord during the preseason. The Tide had just one indoor practice before taking to the cold courts at Memorial Field last Wednesday.

“It’s the slowest start we’ve had to a season and I could cry the blues, but most coaches are in the same state,” Coache said. “We were lucky to even have courts to play on before our opener.”

Even if Concord had extended indoor time, today’s opener at Derryfield (last year’s D-I runner-up) would be a serious challenge for the Tide. Then again, the team should get used to tough opponents – three of its first four matches (and six of its first nine) are against 2012 playoff teams.

Concord will dive into that schedule with sophomore Gabriella Killinger at No. 1. Killinger played at No. 3 last year, took lessons all winter and, “she was on fire during the challenge matches,” Coache said.

“You can see the difference in Gabby’s serve and backhand,” Coache said. “She’s really dedicated to tennis.”

Emily Zimnoski, Concord’s lone senior, is No. 2 on the ladder, just like she was last year. It’s the third year of varsity tennis for Zimnoski, who played at No. 6 as a sophomore, and that experience should serve her well this season.

Junior Meagan Olive learned the game as a freshman, worked her way to No. 5 last year and will start this season at No. 3.

“She’s got a little more pop on her forehand now and she’s playing with confidence,” Coache said. “You can see it happening for her.”

Coache will announce the final three spots for the lineup against Derryfield today, but he said, “it’s really a barrage of kids from four to 10.” That group includes Divine Mugungoi and Mckenzie Bofinger, who were both near the top six last year, and freshman Skye Reese. Reese took lessons with Coache this winter and has the kind of potential Concord needs to return to the top of D-I (the Tide went to back-to-back finals in 2008 and 2009).

“(Reese) is a happy-go-lucky kid and nothing fazes her, she just goes on to the next point,” Coache said. “She’ll get playing time this year, but more importantly she’s so into the game right now that by her senior year she could be a controlling No. 1 player. So with Gabby and Skye, they should get real good experience this year and that can help for the next couple of years.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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