Senior Spotlight: WPIAL singles champion hoped to build on success

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020 | 1:01 PM


Editor’s note: Each day, Trib HSSN will spotlight WPIAL spring athletes whose senior years were cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.

Zach Palko wasn’t satisfied.

The Indiana senior had the 2019 WPIAL Class AA boys singles title and a trip to the PIAA semifinals in his growing portfolio, but he wanted more.

“To say that I was excited for this year was an understatement because I had left room to improve,” said Palko, who has signed to play collegiately at Division I St. Francis (Pa.).

“It made me want do even better. The entire winter, I trained and just worked my butt off to do whatever I could to get to the next level. I wanted to get to the individual state finals, win a state title. To have everything shut down was a sucky way for it to end.”

Palko, returning to No. 1 singles, also was ready to help lead the Indians squad with a new look after four of the seven starters were lost to graduation.

Sewickley Academy’s move to Class AAA last season opened the door for a new Class AA team champion, and Indiana, the 2016, ‘17 and ‘18 WPIAL runner-up, marched in and claimed the program’s first team title with a 3-2 victory over Quaker Valley in the finals.

After more than a month since Pennsylvania shut down all school activities and established stay-at-home isolation orders in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Palko returned to the tennis court Monday evening to play a couple of sets.

With his father Phil’s busy teaching responsibilities and his sister Kate’s requirements in finishing her degree work at Saint Vincent College, Palko struggled to find a playing partner.

“It’s good to be able to get back on the court,” said Palko, who had constructed several spots to hit the tennis ball in and around his house.

How would you describe your rivalry with Valley senior Michael Odrey, a good friend and section foe for the past several years?

Even though I won both matches last year, they were fun to play and were pretty competitive. The level of respect we have for each other is monstrous. To come out on the court and have the level of shots he had compared to the year before, I was so happy for him. He took his game to another level. It’s good to have someone you know for sure you’re going to have a good match with.

What is your best memory of playing tennis at Indiana?

I would certainly have to say winning the WPIAL team title last season with all of my teammates. I grew up with so many of them playing tennis, and we all had a common goal of winning a WPIAL championship. It was such a good feeling to hold the (first-place) trophy with everyone after falling short the past couple of years.

What is one of your best memories as a sports fan?

I would say Tiger Woods’ Masters championship last year. Growing up, I didn’t really appreciate golf until I started playing more. I appreciated the fact that Tiger was making his comeback and played so well in such a big tournament. It was cool to watch him win that.

What made St. Francis (Pa.) the right fit for you?

The coach approached me. I don’t know why I wasn’t thinking of them. Once I got to visit the campus and talked to the coach more, I just fell in love with it. It’s a small school, but it is arguably the cleanest campus I’ve ever stepped foot on. They really take pride in the campus, and that really stuck out to me.

What do you plan to study in college?

Marketing. It’s a very well-rounded experience. The professors are really in tune to you being an athlete. It is a strong relationship between the athletic and academic sides.

You also golfed this past fall for Indiana. What was that experience like?

It was my first experience of even qualifying for the varsity team. Tennis has always been a more comfortable situation, but I had to work really hard to get to the level I did (with golf), and I ended up playing No. 2 for our team by the end of the season. Section qualifying was my first real golf tournament experience. I didn’t make it to WPIALs, but I had a lot of fun.

Is there anything you’ve picked up or started doing more during the past month of quarantine orders?

I’ve just started to straight up run more. I don’t go on massive 10-mile runs, but if I have the time, I will take advantage of the nice weather. I certainly enjoy being outside. This is a good time to make it or break it. There will be kids who come out of this training their butts off to get to where they’ve been, and others who haven’t done a thing. I want to be one of those kids who is at another physical level coming out of this isolation period.

If you could pick anyone to give a commencement speech at your graduation, who would it be?

I want to say Mark Hamill. I am a huge Star Wars nut. I can’t get enough of it. I think he presents such a true demeanor. He’s very honest and uplifting. I respect that a ton. He’s certainly been through it all and has stories and experiences to share.

What is your favorite Star Wars release to watch?

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (animated TV series) actually. It was on Netflix for a season, and now it is on Disney+. I just love the show so much more than the movies. It does a great job of tying the “Attack of the Clones” movie with “Revenge of the Sith.”

If you were asked to give a speech, what advice would you give to underclassmen?

Whatever you love doing, don’t take it for granted and give it your all. Do it to your best ability because you never know when it could be stopped.

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

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