Seniors boost Hampton tennis to winning season

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Saturday, May 4, 2024 | 11:01 AM


The Hampton boys tennis team traveled to Philadelphia for a mid-April match, running up the “Rocky” steps and visiting the Liberty Bell during a day of sightseeing.

The Talbots were something to see this season.

Paced by an experienced senior class and the second PIAA singles qualifier in program history, Hampton reached the WPIAL Class 2A quarterfinals for the second consecutive season.

“The seniors know how to go in focused and get the job done,” coach Grant McKinney said.

The Talbots (8-5 as of May 1) blanked No. 12 Blackhawk, 5-0, in the first round and were scheduled to play No. 4 South Park on May 2 in the WPIAL quarterfinals. The match ended too late for this edition’s deadline.

In the victory over Blackhawk, seniors Vitaliy Pikalo and Ben LaRusse and sophomore Jaxson Mayer swept singles, while senior Hayden List and junior J.J. Edwards won at No. 1 doubles and seniors Matthew Mason and Brandon Pascucci took No. 2 doubles.

“We’ve played phenomenally,” PIAA-bound Pikalo said before the playoffs. “I like how our singles is shaping up and our doubles is strong and deep. I like how we are playing right now, and I really have high expectations in playoffs.”

Pikalo’s season isn’t over yet. The big-hitting 6-foot-4, 185-pounder, who started playing tennis only three years ago, achieved his goal of reaching the state championships, finishing an unexpected fourth at the WPIAL finals.

“It was my dream from the beginning, ever since I’ve started,” Pikalo said. “It was something I really didn’t think would happen. But it turns out anything can happen with enough practice and determination.”

Seeded 11th after taking third in the section and barely qualifying for the WPIAL championships, Pikalo upset No. 6 seeded sophomore Finn Wentz of Sewickley Academy, 10-3, in the first round, and nipped No. 3-seeded Montour junior John Rohrkaste, 10-8, in quarterfinals on April 9 at North Allegheny.

“Because of my low seeding, I had no expectations coming in,” Pikalo said. “I was ready to battle and put out everything I have. I really wanted to make it to states, and I knew what it took.”

In the pivotal quarterfinal match, Pikalo was down 8-7 and trailed Rohrkaste 40-0 before rallying to win three straight games and become only the second Talbot in program history to reach the PIAA singles championships (Brad Cisek, 2012). Pikalo said he had never beaten Rohrkaste before, losing all six matches.

“That was probably the best match I’ve gotten to watch this year,” McKinney said. “Not only from (Pikalo), but literally from anybody. He refused to lose. There was one rally of 25 balls. It was just incredible.”

Pikalo lost to No. 2 seeded Aquinas Academy senior Jackson Gillespie, 6-1, 6-0, in the semifinals and No. 4 South Park sophomore Jonah Jasek, 6-2, 6-0, in the third-place consolation match. But by placing in the top four, he had already secured his spot in the PIAA singles championships May 24-25 at Hershey Racquet Club. Gillespie, 17, of Middlesex Township, Butler County, lost in the WPIAL finals and advanced to the PIAA championships for the second consecutive year.

Pikalo said he is “ecstatic” to be able to play at states. His big serve gives him a chance to advance past the opening round.

“His serve is dominant,” McKinney said. “When you watch his first serve go in, it’s as good as anybody’s I’ve seen in terms of the quickness and the angle it comes down. It must be frightening sometimes for other guys to be back there.”

The Talbots graduate five seniors — Pikalo, LaRusse, Mason, List and Pascucci. They return Edwards, Mayer and the List twins, sophomores Zane and A.J.

They will remember the trip to play Philadelphia Central. The Talbots lost 4-1, but they attended a Pirates-Phillies game — the Bucs won 5-2 — and visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rocky statue, among other sites.

“It was a lot of fun,” McKinney said. “They are a special group of guys.”

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