Gateway tennis building winning culture with more experienced lineup

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Sunday, September 27, 2020 | 11:01 AM


With a mix of experienced and younger players this fall, the Gateway girls tennis team hopes to continue its overall development with matches that will help it both now and in the future.

“We have different skill levels throughout the team, and everyone is really supportive of each other,” senior captain Srilekha Sapram said. “We have a great group that loves coming out and playing tennis.”

Under the direction of third-year coach Kenny Nieser, the Gators have three seniors among eight players on the roster. There is one junior with three sophomores and one freshman.

“Myself and coach (Montaire) Taylor have really tried to change the culture of the team,” said Nieser, who also instructs at the Rashid Hassan Elite Tennis Academy at Edgewood Country Club.

“The way I put it to the girls was that we are trying to get tennis players here, not just girls who play tennis. This is just a great group of girls who want to get better and make a difference. We see that every day.”

Sapram is a three-year singles starter who has played No. 1 the past two seasons.

She tested her mettle at the section singles tournament Sept. 16. Kiski Area’s Ambur Orowitz, the No. 7 seed, got the better of her in the second round.

“It was a tough one,” Sapram said. “(Orowitz) is a good player. Section singles is always really good competition. I could tell I was improving throughout the match. When I played her again (Sept. 21), I didn’t win, but I was able to do a little better. I just want to keep working on things that will help me improve my game.”

Sapram said she was able to establish a foundation for her varsity career at Gateway through observing players such as former captain Kyah Russell, a senior in 2018.

“I was really nervous about playing (varsity) tennis as a freshman, and I knew I could always go to Kyah if I had questions or needed advice,” Sapram said.

“I saw how much she liked the game and wanted to improve her game and help the other girls on the team improve, too.”

Sapram said she also learned a lot from last year’s captain and lone senior, Erika Jackson.

“I’ve taken a lot from both of them that has helped me be that kind of leader this year,” she said.

Nieser said he’s impressed with the way Sapram has helped guide the team, especially the younger players.

“She understands what needs to be done, both on and off the court,” Nieser said. “Her leadership and the way she conducts herself really shows in the other girls.”

Sapram is not the only player with experience on the team as fellow senior Laylo Tukhtamuradova is a multiyear starter.

They are two of four who returned with starting experience from last season. Junior Lydia Nguyen and senior Ruth Miller are the others.

Tukhtamuradova and Miller have established themselves as the Gators’ No. 1 doubles team, and the duo picked up a three-set victory in a tough 3-2 section loss to Kiski Area on Sept. 21.

They also won in Gateway’s 4-1 setback to Connellsville the next day and were set to represent the Gators as one of the team’s two doubles entries into Wednesday’s Section 1 doubles tournament.

The tournament was to start past the deadline for this week’s edition.

Nguyen joined Sapram at the section singles tournament and picked up a win before falling in the second round to No. 2 seed and eventual section champion Jenna Bell from Latrobe.

“She played with confidence in getting that win,” Nieser said. “It was a good experience for her.”

Sophomore Sophia Hernandez played No. 2 singles in the match against Kiski and came away with a three-set victory.

Other team members with varsity starting time this year are sophomores Amara Bristol and Gabrielle Opaska and freshman Abiha Syed.

Gateway owns a team victory over Woodland Hills in a nonsection match.

Nieser said the team members were surprised and also relieved when they found out there would be a season with all of the discussion of safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“They all appreciate the opportunity to be on the court together each day,” Nieser said.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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