Sister combos lead Sewickley Academy girls tennis to championship season

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Sunday, November 14, 2021 | 11:01 AM


The Close sisters are not just close. The Sewickley Academy athletes are best of friends.

“Kirsten is my best friend and my biggest competitor,” Ashley said, “and I am so grateful she was able to be a part of this season with me.”

Ashley, a 16-year-old sophomore, starred at No. 1 singles for the SA girls tennis team, which finished as the WPIAL Class 2A champion and PIAA runner-up. She rolled through the 2021 campaign undefeated until reaching the state finals.

Ashley’s freshman sister Kirsten started at third singles for the Panthers.

“Last year, Kirsten was super excited to be a part of the team because she would always show up to all of my games, waiting for her turn to be to be a part of the team,” Ashley said. “She’s had a positive experience now that she’s been a significant part of the team, and she’s thankful for the opportunity to experience the bond we shared with the rest of the players on the team this season.”

Kirsten, 14, made a quick impact on the SA tennis program. And Ashley had a big influence on her.

“Ashley is one of the smartest players I know on the court. She can figure out (an opponent) after the second game,” Kirsten said. “Ashley always knows where and when to hit a ball. I feel this season was Ashley’s season. Though she wasn’t a captain, she was definitely the star of the team.

“My sister and I are best friends. We do everything together and always have a fun time. We did not necessarily get along when we were younger, but over time as we both matured, our relationship has gotten stronger.”

Ashley won the WPIAL Class 2A singles championship this year, defeating Knoch’s Ally Bauer on Sept. 24 at North Allegheny. She was not able to participate in the WPIAL singles event in 2020 because of an injury.

The sophomore standout, who like her sister competes for Pittsburgh Premier Lacrosse Club and the Sewickley Academy girls lacrosse team, defeated senior teammate Stella Dobrovolska-Ivanova on Sept. 17 in the section title match.

One of the Close girls’ favorite activities is practicing and playing tennis.

“My sister and I always play tennis together,” Ashley said. “Kirsten’s main strength is her fierceness on the court. She’s never afraid to go for the big winner, and she never gives up.”

Kirsten, who does a lot of service work with her mom, friends and sometimes her sister, believes she was a part of the growth process exhibited by the Panthers this fall.

“I feel as a team we got progressively better throughout the season,” she said. “Everyone had a crucial role even if they were not in the starting lineup.

“I loved being on the team because everyone made it feel like you were a part of a family. Off the court, I talk to my teammates during the change of classes and other breaks. With the older girls, I look up to them and go to them for advice. I loved getting to know and become friends with everyone on the team, and it really helped me feel more comfortable with being new to the high school.”

There actually were two sets of sisters on this year’s team at SA. The lone senior in the group is Roshni Thakkar, who teamed with junior Maria Silvaggio at No. 2 doubles this year.

Roshni is the older sister of Rayna, who competed with sophomore Anjali Shah at No. 1 doubles.

“Rayna and I have played tennis together since a very early age. We train at Pennsylvania Tennis Academy,” Roshni said. “Rayna’s strengths are her technique, perseverance and determination. She uses her skillset to take control of matches. It is always interesting when we play each other.

“It is very competitive to earn a position on Sewickley’s varsity team. As a freshman, to earn a spot as a starter says a lot about Rayna’s character and tennis play. She had a tremendous season with more growth to come. Her explosive play and great sportsmanship motivated the whole team.”

Roshni, 17, said having her younger sister as a teammate was an unforgettable experience.

“My sister and I have always been extremely close,” Roshni said, “and we have become even closer this tennis season. I am grateful we had the opportunity to play together for the team. It’s an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

For the 14-year-old Rayna, who has taken classical Indian and Bollywood dance classes since the age of 5, having her older sister as a teammate at least for one season was something to cherish.

“My sister and I play tennis together a lot,” Rayna said. “Roshni is a very well-rounded player. Her volleys are her secret weapon. Even when she is faced with a challenging shot, she can react quickly to deflect it and get the ball back in play.

“Roshni had an incredible season. She’s a true leader, and I could not be prouder of her. She and I have always been incredibly close. She has taught me so many important lessons that only sisters can. One is to take a breath and even laugh when things get stressful. I am so happy we got the chance to play together this season. She really went out of her way to support me, and I am really going to miss her next year.”

One of the district’s premier programs, Sewickley enjoyed a banner season in 2021.

The SA girls stormed through their schedule until losing a 3-2 decision to Wyoming Seminary in the PIAA Class 2A finals Oct. 30 at Hershey Racquet Club.

No. 2-seeded SA captured the WPIAL championship by defeating No. 1 seed and playoff rival Knoch, 4-1, on Oct. 20.

At the WPIAL finals, the Close sisters won at singles, and SA swept doubles behind Shah, Silvaggio and the Thakkar sisters.

The Panthers also cruised to first place in Section 5 this season.

Sewickley ended its team schedule with a 15-1 record, a 14th consecutive section title, eighth WPIAL championship in school history and a second-place showing in the state.

“I feel my team did amazing this year,” Ashley said. “We all put in a huge amount of work and drastically improved our game. To come out second in the state is such a big deal to all of us, especially because we put in so much effort and time into getting ourselves there.”

Credit veteran coach Whitney Snyder with having a strong voice in the team’s success in his 30th year with the program.

“I was extremely proud to be a part of our team,” Roshni said. “We worked very hard, and each member played exceptionally all season. Coach Whitney prepared us well. He really knows how to help us bring out our strengths.”

Rayna said Snyder was a motivational force for the team and the individuals on the team.

“Coach Whitney provided a lot of support,” she said, “and his belief in me inspired me to play even harder. Securing the WPIAL title and being a state finalist shows our commitment to our team. Our performance was incredible. We played our hearts out and really became very close.”

All four sisters believe that despite losing five seniors to graduation, next year’s team will be strong once again.

“I feel we will still have a lot of talent and will continue to be a tough competitor,” Ashley said.

Kirsten said the dynamics of next year’s team will alter slightly with only two starting spots open.

“I feel our team will still perform well because we have so much young talent,” she said.

As a senior, Roshni will be the only one among the four girls not back next season. She plans to major in pre-med and global health in college and hopes to play on a club tennis team.

“I fully expect next year’s team to make another long run for WPIAL and state championships,” she said. “The team has a lot of young talent.”

Rayna believes strongly in the Panthers’ chances in 2022 and beyond.

“I believe our team is going to be very strong and solid for years to come,” she said. “We have talented players coming up from JV and the middle school.”

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