WPIAL tennis season heats up for A-K Valley trio, Section 3-AA teams

Monday, April 12, 2021 | 7:56 PM

The Alle-Kiski Valley will be well-represented Tuesday at the WPIAL Class AA singles championships as Highlands senior Gabe Norris and Valley sophomore Nicholas Bussard and senior Thomas Albert will take to the court at Shady Side Academy.

For the 10th-seeded Norris, the No. 1 singles player for the Golden Rams, the game plan against his first-round opponent, No. 7 Joe Toth, a senior from South Park, is pretty simple.

“Win,” he said. “I want to go in and do my best. I’ve never had this opportunity before. Of course, last year, everything got canceled, and the year before, I wasn’t quite at the level I am now. I just want to learn all I can from it and go as far as I can.”

Last Thursday’s Section 3-AA tournament was a first for Norris, who didn’t compete at section singles or doubles as a freshman or sophomore.

Norris lost just four of 24 games in the first two rounds and topped Bussard, 6-0, 6-1, in the semifinals. He then met North Catholic’s Nicolas Scheller, one of the top players in the state who previously played high-level tennis in New Mexico before moving to the Pittsburgh area in 2019.

Scheller defeated Norris in the finals, 6-0, 6-1, en route to the No. 1 seed for Tuesday’s tournament, which begins at noon. The championship and consolation finals will be Wednesday at North Allegheny.

Scheller and Norris also met in the team’s dual match March 30, and the results were similar.

‘The first time against (Scheller) was a little different because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Norris, a Robert Morris soccer recruit who splits his time beyond academics this spring with his Pittsburgh Riverhounds club team.

“I saw him warm up a little bit. Right away, you can tell that his swing is so effortless. Tough isn’t really the right word when describing how it is to play him. Growing up in soccer, too, I’ve never lost that bad in a sport in my life the first time I played him. The second time wasn’t much different. He is just on a whole other level. I don’t know if anyone can touch him at WPIALs or even states.”

Bussard, part of a sophomore combination with Dylan Gentile at No. 1 and No. 2 singles for a Valley team undefeated in Section 3-AA at 4-0, will open with Central Valley junior Christian Kosinski in the first round.

Albert will go up against No. 3 seed Drew Dimidijan.

Despite semifinal losses at the section tournament, Bussard and Albert knew they had clinched WPIAL tournament spots, so the pressure wasn’t as high for their consolation final last Thursday. But the competitiveness was not lost on either in their matchup.

“It was pretty cool, since Thomas is a teammate and a good friend,” said Bussard, who needed a second-set tiebreaker to win, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5).

“It was a great experience. We both played well. We always bring out the best in each other.”

Albert went the distance in the first two rounds of pro-set matches, winning both by 10-8 scores.

“We go back and forth in practice all the time,” Albert said. “It felt good to actually play (Bussard) in a match that counts. It was a really good match. We started to get tired because we had played a lot in the first couple of rounds the day before. We both wanted to win, but we knew that when it was over, we would be able to share a pretty cool experience.”

While Norris, Bussard and Albert are focused on WPIAL singles, the drive to the WPIAL team playoffs is heating up in Section 3-AA.

Mother Nature washed away some key section matches Monday as the section determines the four teams to advance to the team tournament, set to begin May 3.

North Catholic and Valley, both 4-0 in section, were to play Monday for the outright lead in the section.

Highlands, who made the WPIAL Class AA quarterfinals with Valley in 2019, and Knoch, led by junior Kevin Golden and senior John Mack, both are 3-1.

“We came into the season with very little to no section-play experience,” Valley coach Rachael Link said.

“Without a doubt, Section 3 in Class AA, top to bottom, is a phenomenal section. There are only two classes in tennis, so we, at Valley, are competing against a number of larger schools. You have to rise to the occasion and practice like you want to play, and our guys have done that this year.”

It will be a mad dash to the end of section play with the final matches to be played next Monday. The top teams from each Class AAA and Class AA section qualify for the playoffs. Hampton, who dropped from Class AAA, is nipping at the heels of the leaders at 3-2 in section, while Burrell and Indiana, both at 1-3, are hoping to make a move down the stretch.

A potential difference-making match was a 3-2 win for Knoch over Hampton a week ago.

“This section is a buzzsaw,” said Highlands coach Tyler Kirin, who saw his No. 2 singles player, Richard Ratliff, make the section singles quarterfinals.

“Everyone is incredibly competitive. I have a ton of respect for the coaches in the section who have so much experience with the game and make such a difference to their teams. My team comes out and works hard and competes every day. That has put us again in playoff contention with a lot of other really good teams in this section.”

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

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