Aquinas Academy junior aces WPIAL tennis test

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Saturday, April 22, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Aquinas Academy junior Jack Gillespie is a three-time Tae Kwon Do world champion and is ranked No. 2 in the nation in his age group for combat weapons.

He also wields a pretty mean tennis racquet.

Gillespie rolled to the WPIAL Section 3-2A singles title in late March and took third at the WPIAL Class 2A singles tournament April 12 to qualify for the PIAA championships for the first time.

Gillespie, 16, of Middlesex Township, Butler County, will open play in the 16-boy PIAA Class 2A bracket against the District 3 champion May 26 at Hershey Racquet Club.

“I have high hopes,” Gillespie said. “I’d like to make it to the semis, if I could. It’s a very steep ask. I’m very excited about making it for the first time. I’d like to make it far.”

Because tiny Aquinas Academy doesn’t sponsor a boys tennis team, Gillespie trains privately and competed in the postseason tournaments as the school’s lone singles entrant.

Seeded No. 2 in the section, he blanked Springdale senior Holden Swink, 10-0 in quarterfinals before topping Hampton junior and No. 3 seeded Vitaliy Pikalo, 6-1, 6-0, to reach the finals for the first time. With the title on the line, he routed No. 1 seeded North Catholic senior Alex Garvey, 6-0, 6-0, on March 29 at Hampton Community Park for the gold.

At the WPIAL championships on April 11-12 at Bethel Park, the No. 3-seeded Gillespie beat No. 14 Quaker Valley junior Chase Merkel, 10-2, in first round and No. 6 Chartiers Valley junior Brendon Hallisey, 10-1, in the quarterfinals to clinch a top-four finish and a spot at the PIAA championships.

Gillespie lost to No. 2 seeded Sewickley Academy sophomore Severin Harmon, 6-2, 6-1, in the semifinals but rebounded to outlast Montour sophomore John Rohrkaste, 7-6 (3), 6-3, in the third-place match after trailing 5-2 and 6-5 in the first set of a 2 1/2-hour marathon.

“It was a great day,” Gillespie said. “It was awesome. My main goal coming into WPIALs was to try to make states. That was the best feeling ever, knowing that I was into states.”

Pikalo, who had placed third in Section 1-2A, fell short in his bid for a PIAA invitation, but the first-time WPIAL qualifier had a memorable effort with an 11-9 upset win over No. 4-seeded Latrobe senior Josh Havrilla in the first round. Pikalo trailed 9-7 before rallying to win the final four games and earn a quarterfinal date with Rohrkaste, an eventual 10-4 loss.

“It was very exciting,” Pikalo said. “It was quite an atmosphere. … I actually performed well against (Rohrkaste). He’s a good buddy of mine. We’ve played multiple times in tournaments. It was a good battle. I was OK with how I played. I did not make it an easy match for him, that’s for sure.

“I still was very proud with how I pulled through in the first round, and I think overall I played well.”

While his counterparts play a full regular-season schedule with their respective schools, Gillespie tunes up for the WPIAL postseason tournaments by training with his coach, Mariana Perry, and entering an occasional USTA event.

Wearing a white Aquinas Academy jersey that his dad designed on Customink.com during his ninth-grade year, Gillespie placed fourth in the section as a freshman and third last season. He lost in the first round at WPIALs as a freshman and in the quarterfinals as a sophomore.

“My first year going in, I knew nobody,” Gillespie said. “I was just blindly walking in. Over the course of the two or three years, I know about half of the kids going in there.”

Gillespie, who began martial arts about seven years ago, is a second-degree black belt. The 5-foot-11, 160-pounder won national titles in the 15-17 year-old age group in traditional sparring in 2021 and team combat sparring and team traditional sparring in ‘22 in Phoenix, Ariz.

He didn’t start taking tennis seriously until the summer of 2020, when the pandemic shut down Tae Kwon Do workouts and competitions.

“I was itching to get out of the house. Over the summer, I thought, ‘Let’s try tennis,’” he said. “When I was younger, I had a Spongebob racket that I would play with now and again. But other than that, I had no idea what tennis was.

“I got a lesson in July (2020). My coach, Jason Minicozzi, taught me how to hit top spin. He got me real tennis shoes, because at the time I was playing in black high tops, and the rest is history.”

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