New coach Hunkele aims to build Highlands tennis into winner

Monday, September 12, 2022 | 11:52 AM

First-year Highlands girls tennis coach Vaughn Hunkele knew exactly what he signed up for when he took the job in August.

The 2016 Highlands grad knew he would need to begin to build a foundation, teach tennis and that winning would come later.

After the first few weeks of the season, Hunkele’s plan of building a winner is on track.

“I knew that we had a lot of inexperienced players joining the team,” said Hunkele, who played tennis at Pitt-Greensburg. “There was a lot of freshmen and a lot of first-year players, too. We’re not a Fox Chapel or Shady Side Academy, so I knew that there was a lot of inexperienced players.

“I knew that there were girls that were passionate about playing a new sport. These girls were looking forward to trying something new. My ultimate goal is to make us a contender.”

Hunkele brings coaching experience to Highlands (0-2, 0-1). In addition to being an assistant coach last season for the Highlands boys tennis team, Hunkele also has been the tennis pro at the Pittsburgh Field Club for the past three years.

Hunkele’s experience as a tennis pro has helped him identify his players’ strengths while working on their weaknesses.

“Half the team, I would say, are beginners, and there’s the other half of the team that are seniors and juniors,” Hunkele said. “And with those girls, we have found that they have certain talents and traits that transfer into tennis.”

With his top-three singles players, Hunkele has stressed the need for consistency.

“Obviously, when we’re playing against more experienced teams who hit with power and more spin, they’re trying to send the ball to where it came from,” Hunkele said. “To combat that, I teach them to give themself a wider target to aim at on the court. As a result of that, you’ll have less balls going out of play. You try and level the playing field.”

Leading off the Golden Rams in No. 1 singles is senior captain Ava Nitowski. Nitowski’s strengths at the moment are her serves and volleys. But the adjustment from playing No. 2 singles last season to facing the top player on the opposing team can be a bumpy ride to start.

“She’s adjusting to playing against girls who hit harder and have better spin,” Hunkele said. “She’s very coachable, though. We’re trying to get her to come up to the net to have short rallies with her opponent.”

At No. 2 singles is junior Gabbi Balog. Hunkele likes Balog’s athleticism and said it has kept her in matches. Balog is one of the players Hunkele mentions when it comes to the most overall improvement since he’s taken over as coach.

At No. 3 is senior captain Rachael Babinsack. Hunkele said Babinsack’s greatest attribute is her heart. Babinsack won her match against nonsection rival Valley.

“(Babinsack) is constantly looking for ways to win,” Hunkele said. “Rachel has been a great leader for our team.”

Coaching doubles and the many strategies that come along with doubles play is an entirely different animal. Hunkele likes where his doubles duos are at and is excited to see both pairs improve as the season moves forward.

At No. 1 doubles is junior Nevaeh Calligan and Helena Vasey. Hunkele said Vasey has one of the best serves and backhands on the team.

“In terms of what they need to work on would be mastering the various strategies in order to master the gameplan for matches,” Hunkele said. “We’re still out of position at times, and we’re trying to cut down on that.”

Probably the biggest surprise so far this season is at No. 2 doubles. Junior Elizabeth Ransom and freshman Alexis Arms have made a quick connection while on the court together.

“I would say that those two have the best chemistry out of all of our doubles teams,” Hunkele said. “Elizabeth complements her well because she’s more experienced. It’s a good dynamic those two have.

“I’ve been the most impressed with those two along with Gabbi in how they played.”

Hunkele said Arms comes in with a softball background and has caught on to the sport pretty quick.

“Alexis has a lot of potential, and I think in two years, she’s gonna be our No. 1,” Hunkele said.

The Ransom/Arms duo picked up their first win over Valley as well.

Highlands will compete against rivals Knoch, North Catholic, Burrell, Hampton, Riverview and The Ellis School in Section 3-2A this season.

“We started the season off with tough matches against Knoch, North Catholic and Hampton,” Hunkele said. “The schedule starts to get a little better for us. Hopefully by the end of the season, we’ll have more than a few wins under our belt.”

William Whalen is a freelance writer.


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