Despite heavy turnover, expectations high for Sewickley girls tennis

Sunday, September 5, 2021 | 11:01 AM

In his 29th season at Sewickley Academy, Whitney Snyder went through one of the most challenging, bizarre years he’s experienced since establishing the Panthers’ girls tennis team as one of the premier programs in the district.

And covid-19 was not the only obstacle.

“I thought our team played tremendous considering a lot of things,” said Snyder, who also leads the highly successful boys program at Sewickley. “First of all, our No. 1 player, Evelyn Safar, transferred to North Allegheny. Had she been there, I would’ve have had six seniors, all starting. Some teams would have not responded from that. Our kids really rallied and rose to the challenge.”

“And the fact that we were able to have tennis at all was such a blessing. I think the girls achieved at a very high level.”

They certainly did, despite having a shot at a four-peat halted by first-time girls Class 2A champ Knoch in an epic final at Shady Side Academy.

“It was a 3-hour, 37-minute match,” said Snyder. “It was such a good sporting event for everyone there — coaches, parents, kids. Everybody battled. It went on forever. It was probably the longest high school tennis match of all time. Everyone was invested.”

One of the centers of the marathon match was Sewickley’s lone non-senior starter, Ashley Close, who enters her sophomore year now as the team’s top singles player.

“It was all pretty new to me, but the experience was great,” Close said. “The person I was playing with, (Knoch’s) Brooke Bauer, is an amazing player. I train with her all the time, so I knew it was going to be a long and brutal match. Even though I lost, it was a great learning experience.

“It was definitely motivation for me to try harder, train harder, so that maybe this year we can beat Knoch and maybe go to states.”

Snyder has to find replacements for his senior-laden 2020 roster, but he will have plenty of options.

“Thirty girls came out for tennis this year,” he said. “Sewickley Academy is one of the smallest Class A schools, and 30 girls come out for tennis?”

That’s roughly 30% of Sewickley Academy’s female enrollment.

Milla Dobrovolska-Ivanova is expected to play a large role, as will Close’s sister, Kirsten, a freshman.

But it will be the slightly elder Close who will undoubtedly lead the way for the Panthers.

“Since I’m playing as (No. 1 singles), I’m definitely playing a lot better competition than I did last year,” said Ashley Close, who is also an accomplished lacrosse player. “So I guess my goal is just sticking with it and putting up a good fight in every match I play. If we play Knoch, the goal for our team is to beat them. It’ll definitely be a close, intense match. But that’s our goal.”

Sewickley has won eight WPIAL titles since 2006 with Snyder at the helm. He has also led the boys team to a remarkable 23 championships in the last 26 played seasons.

“Whitney is amazing,” Close said. “He’s more than just a tennis coach. He’s moral support. After I lost my match (against Knoch), he called me almost every single day for two weeks, asking me if I was OK, what he could do better and how I felt about his coaching.

“He’s more than just a coach. He’s a friend, and he’s someone who I personally look up to.”

To Snyder, friendship is key to building — and continuing — Sewickley’s culture and tradition.

“I want more kids to have a positive experience instead of less kids,” he said. “I want the girls to feel they’re part of a close-knit sorority. However we do in a competitive environment, yeah that’s important, but that’s not No. 1.

“It’s not about the championships. It’s about the relationships. If you’re invested in each other, then you naturally work harder for the kids around you and you’re willing to set your ego aside, work on weaknesses, accept what the coach is saying and be a team. If you do all that, it’s a lot of fun.”


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