After cold start, Hampton boys tennis team warming up

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Saturday, April 16, 2022 | 10:01 AM


Hampton boys tennis coach Grant McKinney peeked outside on a wintry Monday in late March and figured practice was a long shot.

“It was really cold, and it was snowing,” McKinney said. “I texted the guys and said, ‘We may not have a chance to practice.’ Both Ethen and the assistant captain got back to me and said, ‘No. We want to practice.’”

Spurred by senior captain Ethen Oh and sophomore Hayden List, the Talbots braved the elements for that March 28 workout with temperatures in the mid-20s.

“It was so cold and so windy,” McKinney said. “But they started playing this game and Ethen got really into it and started cheering all the guys on. We ended up having a really energetic practice. I don’t know how helpful it was in terms of skill development, but it was one of those neat team moments.”

Oh, the lone senior on the roster, is having a neat final season. The Talbots’ No. 1 singles player, he survived a pair of close matches at the Section 4-AA singles tournament April 6 to advance to the WPIAL championships for the first time.

Seeded No. 4, Oh escape with an 11-9 win over No. 13 seed Brandon Boxendell of McGuffey in the first round and then edged No. 5 Lukas Prepelka of Carlynton, 10-7, in the quarterfinals to clinch a top-four finish in the section and secure a berth to the WPIAL championships.

“That was super fun,” said Oh, who lost to Quaker Valley’s Mike Sirianni, 6-1, 6-1, in the section semifinals. “My first match and my second match were both very close. It was a lot of fun, and it is just super gratifying to at least go (to WPIALs) once during my high school career.”

Oh, seeded No. 13, fell to No. 4 Josh Dunham of Mars, 10-1, in the first round of the 16-man WPIAL Class 2A singles tournament April 12 at North Allegheny.

“I’m just really pleased for him,” McKinney said. “He waited for a couple of years (to reach WPIALs) and really wanted it.”

Oh, a member of Hampton’s two-time WPIAL Class 2A swimming championship team, has helped lead the youthful Talbots to the brink of playoffs. Hampton entered the week of April 11 needing one more section win to clinch a WPIAL postseason berth for the second consecutive year despite fielding a varsity roster comprised of one senior, five sophomores and a freshman.

Sophomore Vitaliy Pikalo, who reached the section singles quarterfinals, is playing No. 2 singles and sophomore Ben LaRusse, who missed last season with a shoulder injury, is at No. 3 singles. List and sophomore Matthew Mason form the No. 1 doubles team, and sophomore Justin Rothenberg and freshman J.J. Edwards hold down No. 2 doubles.

The top alternates are junior Luke Proviano and sophomore Brandon Pascucci.

“I think we are doing well,” said Oh, who will attend Carnegie Mellon. “We are definitely playing well.

“I think all of our players are ready and very determined to go out and win and fight for each point. I feel very confident in our abilities.”

Pikalo has been one of the surprises for the Talbots, who own 5-0 victories over Keystone Oaks, McGuffey and Seton-LaSalle in their new-look section. Pikalo played junior varsity as a freshman before a strong summer catapulted him to the No. 2 singles spot.

“He worked an insane number of hours over the summer and offseason to get better,” said McKinney, in his 13th season. “Pretty much anytime you went out to the courts in the summer, he was there.”

The Talbots, meanwhile, found themselves in a new spot.

Last fall, they were moved from Section 3-2A, consisting of mainly Northern suburb schools, into a geographically spread-out section that includes a 48-mile trip to McGuffey, about 11 miles from the West Virginia border. The WPIAL made the move because the number of teams in the sections was unbalanced and there were questions about whether Washington would be able to field a boys team.

“It is very strange,” McKinney said. “… (The sections) just didn’t line up. I never got an explanation. So I guess the WPIAL made the decision that they needed to move us to help balance out the sections. Next year we will be moving yet again. It’s a bit odd.”

Said Oh, “It’s always challenging to move into a new section. It’s an unknown. It’s kind of weird going into the section just not knowing anything because it is brand new. It is fun though. The only bad part is we’ve got the long bus ride to away matches.”

Aside from some long road trips, the Talbots also are playing a demanding nonsection schedule that includes Class 3A programs Peters Township, Franklin Regional, Upper St. Clair and Chartiers Valley.

“It gives us an idea of what a really good team looks like,” McKinney said. “I think that’s helpful for my team to see, especially these young players.”

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