Led by Close sisters, Sewickley Academy girls tennis in prime position

Sunday, September 25, 2022 | 11:01 AM

Sewickley Academy’s Ashley Close took the first step toward what’s expected to be another compelling playoff run this season.

Close defeated junior Chloe DeSanzo of Beaver, 6-1, 6-0, in the Section 4-2A finals Sept. 15 at Beaver High School.

Close also beat Central Valley junior Rachel Hardek in the semifinals held at Blackhawk, 6-1, 6-0.

Along with the impressive wins against DeSanzo and Hardek, Close defeated Beaver Falls senior Jessica King, 10-0, and Beaver freshman Anna Mrkonja, 10-2.

“Much of the competition that I played during sections had gotten a lot better compared to previous years and really gave me great competition,” Close, 17, said. “My season has been going pretty well. I lost one match to USC’s No. 1 (player), which was a great learning experience for me.”

Close won the Section 5 title last year before claiming the WPIAL championship with a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Ally Bauer of Knoch. DeSanzo was the defending Section 4 champion.

As a freshman, the right-handed-hitting Close was unable to participate in the WPIAL finals because of an injury.

This year, she advanced to the WPIAL singles championships as the No. 1 seed in 2A. After a first-round bye, Close blanked Greensburg Central Catholic sophomore Sasha Hoffman, 10-0, in the quarterfinals then defeated Winchester Thurston sophomore Cecilia Gurgel, 6-0, 6-3, in the semifinal round. Hoffman was seeded ninth; Gurgel was No. 5.

Close fell short of her quest to retain her WPIAL crown Sept. 22 in the championship round after she lost 6-2, 6-3 to South Park senior Nicole Kempton, the No. 3 seed.

Younger sister Kirsten Close, a 15-year-old sophomore, won the third-place match at the section tournament by defeating Hardek, 6-0, 6-1.

Close, seeded third, blanked Riverside senior Meredith Cole, 10-0, and Neshannock junior Elena Noga, 10-0, in the first two rounds.

“I feel I did well,” Close said. “However, I have a lot to improve on before WPIALs and some important matches.

“Our season is going great. We’ve only lost one match even with people missing games and being out from sickness. I’ve lost one match to (South Park’s) Nicole Kempton when playing first singles in my sister’s absence. I have been playing pretty well and I have consistently been improving. I can’t wait to play the rest of the season and see what great things my team does.”

The younger Close sibling drew the No. 10 seed for the WPIAL 2A singles tournament and upset Belle Vernon freshman and No. 7 seed Gabriella Dusi, 10-5, before being tripped up by Knoch junior Emily Greb, 10-4, in the quarterfinals. Greb was the No. 2 seed.

Ashley and Kirsten Close compete at No. 1 and No. 2 singles for Sewickley with sophomore Rayna Thakkar in the No. 3 slot.

Anjali Shah, a junior, and Maria Silvaggio, a sophomore, team up at No. 1 doubles with two newcomers in the lineup, junior Gwyn Belt and sophomore Maria Sirianni, competing at No. 2.

Junior Abigail Bojalad rounds out the team, which is coached by Whitney Snyder in what is widely regarded as one of the district’s premier programs.

A Sewickley Academy graduate, Snyder is a member of the Duquesne University Sports Hall of Fame. He was the captain, No. 1 player and MVP of both the Dukes golf and tennis teams as an undergrad in the early 1980s.

He later coached in the men’s tennis program and was voted Atlantic 10 Co-Coach of the Year in 1998. After college, Snyder played on the professional satellite circuits in the United States and Australia.

As of Sept. 20, Sewickley was nearly undefeated with a 3-2 nonsection loss to Class 3A Mt. Lebanon the only blemish on its record.

“Our team has only had one loss in a close match with Mt. Lebanon while Rayna was away,” Kirsten Close said. ”Other than that, our team has been doing great in our new section.

“I’m not really putting any expectations on myself except to just have fun and enjoy the competition. However, I think my team is going to do great things this season. We are improving every game. I can’t wait for this season to continue.”

DeSanzo defeated Close, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2, in the semifinals of the section tournament. Close, who is left-handed, and Roshni Thakkar finished as the WPIAL Class 2A doubles runners-up last year.

The Panthers cruised to first place in Section 5 in 2021 ahead of Ambridge, Carlynton, Hopewell, Keystone Oaks, Montour and Quaker Valley. Sewickley, Montour and QV took the top three spots.

This season, SA moved into Section 4, joining Beaver, Beaver Valls, Blackhawk, Ellwood City, Neshannock and Riverside.

The Panthers won their first five matches in section play by 5-0 scores.

“Our team has been doing great. We are undefeated in the section,” said the older Close sibling. “The starting lineup has not changed since the beginning of the season, which has really helped us settle into our positions. I have high hopes for our success in the future.”

The No. 2 Panthers rolled past No. 1 Knoch, 4-1, in last year’s WPIAL Class 2A championship round then went on to claim the PIAA runner-up position.

The SA girls captured the WPIAL title behind the Close sisters, who won at No. 1 and No. 3 singles, and by sweeping Knoch in doubles thanks to Shah, Silvaggio and the Thakkar sisters.

Sewickley ended the 2021 campaign with a 15-1 record, a 14th straight section championship, eighth WPIAL title in school history and the second-place showing in the state.

This year, the Panthers improved to 9-1 overall and 5-0 in the section with 5-0 victories Sept. 19-20 against Riverside and Central Valley.


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