Sewickley Academy, Quaker Valley among WPIAL’s top golf teams

Friday, September 13, 2019 | 6:52 PM

The high school golf regular season has made the turn, and there are two familiar names atop the Section 9-AA leaderboard: Sewickley Academy and Quaker Valley.

The Panthers remain every bit the program that has won the past six WPIAL titles with an unbeaten 7-0 section record through Sept. 11, and the 6-1 Quakers hold their crosstown rival accountable for their only section loss, which puts both programs on course once again to claim the section’s two team playoff berths.

Sewickley Academy, which finished third in the state tournament a year ago, has kept itself sharp by facing top competition early and often. An early season loss to Class AAA Seneca Valley and a runner-up finish behind Fox Chapel, another Class AAA school, in their own Sewickley Invitational were part of a busy August schedule designed to have the Panthers tournament ready.

“We started out with two weeks of four matches each,” Panthers coach Win Palmer said. “The kids loved it. We had an overnight at Bedford Springs to start out. … They loved it, and it was good from an academic standpoint. I think golfers would much rather play matches than practice, and when you have dedicated golfers like we do, they’re going to get their work in on their own time.”

Senior JF Aber, a four-year starter who was one of the leaders in the Panthers’ 2017 state championship team, returns as the Panthers’ top player. Palmer praised Aber’s focus on the course and leadership in a team setting, and Aber should be one of the top contenders to unseat Riverside’s three-time WPIAL individual champion, Skyler Fox.

Making this year’s Panthers unique, however, is the Academy ending its girls golf team a year after a state runner-up finish. That brought the school’s female players to the boys team, led by senior Zoe Luther, who has joined Aber atop the lineup and in a leadership role.

“We have three senior girls on varsity, and it’s been a marvelous time. I give them all the credit for how well it has gone. It’s not a boys team. It’s not a girls team. It’s our team,” Palmer said. “The players elected (Luther) as a captain, and she’s had a stellar year. We did a tournament at Cedarbrook, and she was the co-medalist with JF.”

The Panthers have quality throughout their lineup with junior Tim Fitzgerald, who was a reliable lineup fixture on last year’s WPIAL title team; junior Navin Rana, who last year reached the Western Regional as an individual; and freshman Joey Mucci, who has only bolstered the team’s depth with steady play.

Sophomore Will Duggan, junior Thomas Sykes and senior Haley Nocito all have pushed to round out the Panthers lineup this season and help keep up the team’s winning ways.

“I think they’re aware of the tradition and want to keep us in that tradition. A lot of them play golf with the alumni in the summer, and I think that pushes them and keeps them going,” Palmer said. “We’ve faced some different challenges with merging two teams into one, but now they want to keep up.”

Not to be left behind, the Quakers are pushing to keep their own postseason tradition going and targetting a spot in the six-team WPIAL final after missing out by just seven strokes a season ago.

Like the Panthers, QV has pushed itself with a scrimmage against another of Class AAA’s top programs, Peters Township. Coach Greg Vecchi sees potential to contend in his group but still seeks consistency, especially at the bottom of his lineup.

“It has been a little bit up and down. That bottom of the lineup keeps rotating, and it’s not always because of people jumping up. Sometimes people are sliding back,” Vecchi said. “I know we have the potential, but right now, it’s been one step forward, one step back. But I know they can take that step forward and stay there. It’s more of a mind thing than anything else.”

The Quakers have a potent top of the lineup with senior Aidan Bulger and sophomore Adam Tanabe. Bulger was the third-place finisher in last year’s WPIAL individual championships — two spots ahead of the Academy’s Aber — and Tanabe has emerged as a team leader, following in the footsteps of his brothers, including 2014 WPIAL champion Chris Tanabe.

“The way Adam carries himself, I can’t believe he’s just a sophomore,” Vecchi said. “Aidan, he’s quiet. He’s the nicest kid. Sometimes I think he plays a little too much, but I can always count on him for a good score.”

Junior Kyle Rice, who missed last season with a wrist injury, has been a pleasant addition to the lineup for the Quakers, as has freshman Eva Bulger. Freshman Jackson Bould and juniors Luke Melisko, Marcus Lubert and Johnny Main are among the players who have pushed for starting spots, giving Vecchi plenty to look at in the second half of the season.

Sewickley Academy won the first meeting between the teams, 200-219, at Sewickley Heights on Sept. 5, and Vecchi isn’t thinking about knocking off the Panthers. Instead, he wants to see his own golfers become more steady, so they can put up the best possible showing in the postseason.

“SA, their guys are well under 40 a lot, and they’re always the toughest team. Our guys are confident we can compete with them, but they know Sewickley would have to slip a little for us to have a shot at beating them,” Vecchi said. “But it’s been fun for these guys, and I hope we can play well enough to get into that (WPIAL) top six.”

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