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Sat., Mar. 9 - raiders-tennis-team-off-to-hot-start-despite-thinned-roster
Raiders tennis team off to hot start despite thinned roster
© Gainesville TimesIt's slim pickings for the Stonewall Jackson boys tennis team this year as the number of recruits dropped by about half compared to the group that showed up in 2012.
However, the Raiders' 2-0 record suggests that those who did show up came ready to play.
On Friday, Stonewall followed up on its opening day 7 to 2 road win over Gar-Field on March 5 by defeating Osbourn Park 6 to 3 at the Yellow Jackets' home court in Manassas.
Veterans led the way for the visiting Raiders, with the team's three highest-ranked players -- Devon Norton, Peter Pomajevich and Matt Kitchen -- all scoring solo victories along with their number six player, Sam Keltz.
In doubles play, Stonewall claimed two out of three varsity matches, with both wins coming from its two best pairs.
All of that comes at a time when Stonewall sports about a baker's dozen on its roster.
"It's not the 25 to 30 that we carried" last year, said head coach Mepes Johnson, whose led the boys squad since 1994 and the girls squad since 1990. "This year, we didn't get a whole lot of freshmen or sophomores out for boys or girls. We're not sure why it happened, we don't know why they haven't come out."
Whether they've played varsity before or not, Stonewall's top six this year is an experienced bunch with an ability to pull out wins up and down the line-up, an important aspect for a sport where the winner of the No. 6 matches earns the same point as the victor at the top of the ticket.
Though he may not be known in the local tennis market as well as Stonewall alumnus Jimmy Davis, who placed second at states in 2010, Norton is the Raiders' best hope for achieving post-season honors of any sort.
"This year, I'm hoping to get to states," he said, one year after guiding Stonewall to second place in the Cedar Run District.
Norton and Houston Ward, who graduated last June, earned a trip to states in 2012 as a doubles team.
They lost in the Group AAA quarterfinals 6-3, 6-3 against eventual state champions Matt Waddell and Bharani Sankar of Deep Run.
Ward also lost at states against Lake Braddock's Scott Huang in singles play.
According to Norton, "a lot of chemistry" on the court between him and Ward made he pairing a state-caliber team.
"It was, like, knowing that the other person was able to make the shot," said Norton. "We had some things we would always do when we had a pressure situation."
That included particularly aggressive forehand attacks and forcing opponents to attack from their weak side down the sidelines off of serves as Norton and Ward would line up in a single-file line on one side of the court and then disperse after the hit.
Even though they lost in the Northwest Regional championship to Freedom, Norton mentioned that they often used that move as a key part of their game in the finals.
Now, the returning senior is teamed up with the rising-star Pomajevich, a sophomore who long Johnson described as "a little more aggressive this year" compared to his freshman season.
"Last year, he was willing to wait on the ball. This year, I see him going after the ball," said Johnson, adding that it's "really nice" to see Norton and Pomajevich working together.
"I guess from last year as a whole, I really learned how to play doubles more than just take over the net," said Norton.
For one such lesson, he mentioned that he keyed in on specific spots on the court when he placed his serves instead of just lunging.
According to Johnson, other players can take note based on how he handles himself on the court.
"If anybody can learn by example, he's the one to watch," she said. "He practices hard, he practices the things he needs to work on; he brings a lot of experience and can communicate with the kids about what they need to do."
Meanwhile, Norton noted that Pomajevich, who is one of the tallest players on the team, uses his height to his advantage for serving.
"He's definitely a lot better this year year and can attack things a lot more," said the senior.
Kitchen is back with Stonewall after battling injuries for the last 2.5 years, including a bummed wrist last year.
Norton reported that his wrist "is fine now and that his forehand and serve have "a lot of spin."
That's not all he has to offer either.
"I think you watch Matt Kitchen's backhand and say, 'Wow,' that's beautiful,'" remarked Johnson.
When asked about Kitchen's performance so far through the pre-season and beginning of the regular season, his coach replied, "Oh my gosh, Matt is so into this year... It's written all over him."
Entering his fourth year with the program, senior Kevin Duong is finally making his first showing at the varsity level this year after "steadily" improving over the years, according to Johnson.
She mentioned that he's moving more on the court, particularly during doubles play, and is methodical player instead of just reactionary.
"He's planning ahead. He understands where he's supposed to go," said Johnson. "He's gotten a little quicker and goes after" the ball.
Syed Kazmi returns to the varsity program in the No. 5 position while Keltz rounds out the starting varsity line-up with three or four others on cusp, according to Johnson, including junior Nathan Reddy.
The coach noted that Kazmi's strength is "more probably the mental part of tennis."
It's actually a logical conclusion given that Kazmi helped Stonewall's Academic Bowl team capture the Northwest Regional championship last month.
"He knows how he wants to set up a point," said Johnson.