Hampton girls tennis ready to fight for playoff berth

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Saturday, September 2, 2023 | 11:01 AM


During the second day of Hampton girls tennis tryouts in mid-August, four upperclassmen playing doubles argued over whether a serve was in or out.

Coach Grant McKinney stepped in to settle the dispute — “That was clearly in, ladies” — and the fiery Talbots resumed their practice at Hampton Community Park.

After last season’s WPIAL playoff near-miss, the Talbots this year are fighting for every point.

“I think last year they left a lot of matches on the table, and there is a lot of hunger this year to make the playoffs,” said McKinney, who returned to the court after taking a one-year sabbatical. “That’s what I expect.”

Playing in Class 2A last season for the first time under coach Sara Longo, Hampton dropped a winner-take-all match to Ellis School, 3-2, in the Section 3-2A regular-season finale and was denied its first WPIAL playoff berth since 2013.

Even in defeat, it was a promising moment for a program that went 0-10 as a Class 3A school only two years earlier.

“I feel like it was a confidence boost for our team,” senior Melanie Malloy said. “Just to know that we have players on our team who have the drive and the ability to play (better) teams and still do well.”

The Talbots return a handful of starters, led by No. 1 singles player Grace Stitt, a junior who placed third in the section last season and became only the fourth Hampton girls player to reach the WPIAL singles championship in the past 25 years.

“Losing that match (to Ellis School) definitely made me and the rest of the girls want to work harder and make sure we get to playoffs this year because we do know we’re a team that can get there,” Stitt said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re always at our best.”

The top three teams in the section will advance to the WPIAL Class 2A team playoffs. Defending WPIAL Class 2A champion Knoch, North Catholic and Ellis School are the top competitors for Hampton.

“It was very motivating because we were so close last year,” senior Elena Herchenroether said. “With just a little more practice, we could get (there). We are looking really good, honestly. You can tell people practiced over the summer.”

The Talbots, who were scheduled to open the season Aug. 22 against visiting Franklin Regional, also return senior Emma Spiess and junior Samantha Jones at singles, and longtime doubles partners, Herchenroether and Malloy.

Hampton is getting a boost from a junior varsity team that last season finished 11-2, welcoming junior Abigail Anderson, who went 9-2 as the JV’s No. 1 singles player, and junior Madison Holleran at doubles.

Hampton attracted 26 players to tryouts, which McKinney said is probably the most in his 16 seasons.

The nonsection schedule includes matches against Class 3A schools such as North Allegheny, Pine-Richland, Mars and Seneca Valley. Individually, the section singles tournament is Sept. 13-14 and the section doubles event is Sept. 27-28.

Stitt, who two years ago was part of the first Talbots doubles team to reach the WPIAL tournament since 2014, has big goals for her season. She played six days a week during the winter, focusing on her forehand.

“My forehand has always been a weakness,” she said. “But it has gotten 10 times better. My mom said she no longer holds her breath now whenever I get a forehand.”

Stitt also is approaching this season with a renewed mindset. She said she placed too much pressure on herself last season, and even though it culminated with a trip to the WPIAL championships, she said it was “a tough season mentally.”

“I’m going into this season not putting too much pressure on myself and really focusing on enjoying the game of tennis,” she said. “I think that’s when I will get my best results. I had to take a step back and whatever happens happens.”

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