Tennis preview 2024: PVCICS loaded again, looking to defend WMass title

Aidan Cleary of PVCICS returns a shot against Chicopee’s Daniel Lonczak during their second singles match last season at Hampshire College in Amherst.

Aidan Cleary of PVCICS returns a shot against Chicopee’s Daniel Lonczak during their second singles match last season at Hampshire College in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Belchertown’s Ava Shea serves against Amherst’s Sofia DaSilva-Askew during their first singles match last season in Belchertown.

Belchertown’s Ava Shea serves against Amherst’s Sofia DaSilva-Askew during their first singles match last season in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2024 4:13 PM

Less than a year removed from a Western Mass. Class C championship, the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School boys tennis team is gearing up for yet another deep postseason run this spring.

The Dragons defeated Lee 4-1 in the title match last season, and after only losing one player from that group, they are again going to be the team to beat in Class C and in the Tri-County League North.

“I think we should be pretty strong again,” PVCICS head coach Mike Locher said. “I expect that we should be at least as strong as we were last year, if not stronger, just because the boys are a year older, and faster and stronger. I’m trying not to put too much pressure on them because they’re young, but they think they can at least win the Western Mass. championship, if not go two rounds deep in states.”

Having essentially the same squad back is typically a rarity for championship-winning teams, and Locher is well aware of that. He’s seen the benefits throughout the first couple of weeks of practice and competition.

PVCICS already has a built-in chemistry, and there was no need for Locher to run around the school trying to recruit a handful of students to give tennis a shot. 

“That’s a huge help as far as the first two weeks of practice go, because I know what I’ve got and I know what to expect – I don’t need to go scrambling around to try and find [new players],” Locher said.

With the lone departed player, Hugo Shinn, being the one who competed at No. 1 singles throughout all of last season, the Dragons do have a small hole to fill. But Locher feels there is plenty of talent in house to make up for Shinn transferring to a prep school, and that starts with sophomore Aidan Cleary.

As a freshman, Cleary came in second at the individual Western Mass. championships. He was terrific for PVCICS at second singles, so a step up to No. 1 is inevitable with Shinn gone. Taking Cleary’s spot at No. 2 singles is sixth grader – yes, sixth grader – Lee Ferguson. As crazy as that sounds, Locher said Ferguson is “really, really good,” and is “going places” if he keeps on his current pace of progression.

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Ferguson is one of four sixth graders on PVCICS’ roster. The Dragons thrive off of developing young talent, and they’re again putting themselves in good position for the future – while also having a great chance at success in the present.

Brothers James and Teddy Scott (both juniors) lead PVCICS’ doubles teams in the No. 1 slot, and the two were finalists in the Western Mass. individual tournament last spring.

This team has plenty of talent from top to bottom.

“Aidan is a lot more clinical, a lot more cutthroat this year,” Locher said. “He doesn’t give many points away. I think he’ll be very good. The sixth grader, Lee Ferguson, the kid’s about four feet tall but he just hits the ball a ton. He should be able to do quite well. And then my double teams, I’ve got James and Teddy Scott… They’re juniors this year and they look strong so far to start the season. Those are, right now, my key players, but I’ve got plenty of others. I’ve got so many players and so much depth where I don’t lose that much if a player is absent or sick.”

That depth the Dragons have is a big leg up on their competition. With tennis numbers fluctuating across Hampshire County, PVCICS having 18 players – a dozen of them Locher believes can win at a high level – is an advantage.

“It’s a huge advantage for us,” Locher said. “We probably had half a dozen matches last year where the other team couldn’t field a full seven. That would automatically give us a forfeit. It is really nice for us to have a full lineup.”

Although the Dragons walked away with two titles (Tri-County League North, Class C Western Mass.) last season, they still had trouble earning a favorable seed in the MIAA Division 4 state tournament.

Locher pointed to their strength of schedule, or lack thereof, as the reason why. It wasn’t until the last week of the regular season that PVCICS snuck into the Western Mass. tournament. And as one of the last teams in, the Dragons rolled through Lee (5-0) and Lenox (4-1).

Considering the only struggle from last year was its postseason seeding, Locher ensured PVCICS wouldn’t have that problem again by scheduling difficult opponents like Pope Francis, Longmeadow and two matches with Lee.

“We barely squeaked into the Western Mass. tournament in the last week of the season, and then we dominated both Lee and Lenox,” Locher said. “We’ve tried to fix that this year by scheduling home-and-away matches against Lee and scheduling a match against Longmeadow. We’ve got some good teams on our schedule this year, and I hope that’ll help our ranking overall.”

The pressure of going back-to-back hasn’t hit the Dragons quite yet, and, according to Locher, it may never hit them at all. His group is focused on enjoying their time together doing what they love.

If PVCICS continues with that approach, another championship just might fall right into its lap.

“The nice thing is, they’re young and they just enjoy playing tennis,” Locher said. “If we don’t repeat as Western Mass. champions, I don’t think they’re going to be hugely upset. But I did tell them, I think we have a legitimate chance.”

Fowles to pace Northampton boys, looking to repeat

Similar to PVCICS, the Blue Devils have a title of their own to defend. In Class B, Northampton defeated Ludlow and Amherst en route to a Western Mass. championship. Boston Latin Academy handled the champs 5-0 in the Round of 32 of the Division 3 state tournament.

Junior Reilly Fowles had a lot to do with the team’s success, and he’s back at No. 1 singles along with several players from a year ago. Galen Fowles is the team’s lone senior, Durrell Patrick and Reilly Fowles are the two juniors, but the rest are all underclassmen.

Freshmen Arlo Bourdon Levy, Jude McCutcheon, Kaz Sugihara and Eli Wool as well as sophomores Reed O’Connor and Oliver Levine are all youngsters with a strong work ethic – some with valuable varsity experience.

Despite having a young – and relatively small – team, Northampton’s expectations are as high as ever.

The Blue Devils’ regular season schedule that features Longmeadow and Amherst twice will likely test them, which bodes well heading into the postseason where competition only increases. Behind Reilly Fowles, Northampton hopes to be right back in the mix of Valley League and Class B championships again.

Shea, Stamp lead large Belchertown girls team

Over the past several years, the Orioles have been one of the most consistently strong girls tennis teams in Hampshire County. Belchertown went 16-5 a year ago, including an unblemished league record that earned them a Valley Wheel title.

Their terrific regular season catapulted the Orioles into the Western Mass. championship match, where they lost 3-2 to Ludlow, and into the Round of 16 of the Division 3 state tournament, again falling 3-2 to North Reading.

Belchertown brings a huge team of 20 players into competition this spring. Seniors Ava Shea and Anna Stamp – both committed to play college tennis, Shea at Springfield College and Stamp at Lesley University – lead the way for the Orioles, with senior Emalee Chaisson also a very talented player to watch as well. Those three seniors bring plenty of big-match experience coupled with skill and hard work, a perfect recipe for a team with championship aspirations.

Junior Mia Corish and sophomore Amanda Murray are also expected to make an impact, according to head coach Alanna Grady, who’s in her fourth season with Belchertown.

With a team as experienced, deep and skilled as the Orioles, a successful season is likely on the horizon.

Young, hungry ‘Canes ready to take next step

The Amherst boys tennis team came up just short of a Class B Western Mass. championship a year ago against Northampton, falling 3-2 in a very competitive title match.

After losing 4-1 both times to the Blue Devils in the regular season, the Hurricanes bounced back with a better effort but still fell shy. They then went on to drop a close 3-2 match in the Division 2 preliminary round in the Division 3 state tournament.

Now, with a bunch of players returning to the lineup, including junior Miles Jeffries, who was a premier player in Hampshire County as a sophomore, Amherst is eager to get over the hump and come home from the Western Mass. tournament with some hardware.

Sophomore Elias Katsaros will be playing second singles to start the year for the ‘Canes, and as a freshman he accumulated key match experience at the varsity level.

Although seven of the 12 athletes on the Amherst roster are seventh or ninth graders, head coach Kevin Jeffries still sees his team putting together another respectable campaign.

“I expect the team to perform strong in our [league] this year, and they stand a good chance at another title,” Jeffries said.

More Hampshire County teams to watch

Belchertown’s Trevor Weiss should be a top player in the region once again. Weiss made it to the Western Mass. semifinals in the individual tournament last spring, and is now in his fourth year starting for the Orioles and his second as a captain. Behind Weiss’ leadership, Belchertown hopes to make it back to the tournament after missing it for the first time in eight seasons a year ago. Prior to that, the Orioles had reached seven straight Western Mass. title matches.

“With a strong group of sophomore starters returning and behind a premier player in Trevor Weiss, the program is hoping to return to form and make another deep tournament run,” Belchertown head coach Zach Siano said.

Frontier girls head coach Andrew Varnon, who previously coached the Greenfield boys tennis team, takes over a Redhawk squad that reached the state tournament each of the past two years. The majority of last year’s tournament team has graduated, with just six players returning. Of the 18 players on Frontier’s roster, 14 are middle schoolers. Senior Hashini Ratnatunge is the Redhawks’ top returner, serving as the No. 1.

One team gearing up for a run is the Frontier boys, with new coach Stephen Bryant coming over from Mount Greylock. Bryant was named the Western Mass. Boys Tennis Coach of the Year in 2015 and looks to bring a fresh perspective to the Redhawks. Behind singles players Jacob Han and Robert Fuqua and a strong doubles team in Oliver Brown and Brayden Reipold.

“My move from Mount Greylock, where I accumulated seven years of coaching experience, to take the helm at Frontier marks a new chapter not just for me but for the team as well,” Bryant said. “This transition brings fresh perspectives and methodologies to our training and strategy, aiming to invigorate the team’s dynamics and approach to the game.”

While the PVCICS boys have high expectations, the girls’ goals are just as lofty. Under first year head coach Nicole Cronin, the Dragons are coming off a 14-3 campaign in which they lost in the Round of 32 of the Division 4 state tournament. Elisa Shinn is a marquee player to watch for PVCICS.

Jonathan Ventura takes over the Holyoke girls program, and has a deep team in his first season as head coach. The Purple Knights are led by senior Allison Jordain, and have a combination of seven juniors and seniors on their roster this spring.