South Xtra: Mt. Lebanon teen earns tennis scholarship to Texas A&M

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A.J. Catanzariti's list of college destinations were a who's who of NCAA Division I college tennis powerhouses -- Georgia, Ohio State, Texas A&M and Illinois.

In the end, Catanzariti felt most comfortable in College Station, Texas.

The senior, who trains in College Park, Md., but grew up in Mt. Lebanon, signed his national letter of intent with Texas A&M on Nov. 14.

"I was trying to find the best combination between academics and a great team," Catanzariti said.

"The coaches also played a big role in my decision. With [head coach] Steve Denton and [assistant coach] Bob McKinley, I feel comfortable and like I have two head coaches. I know they're going to help me get better."

It is the second time in a few years Catanzariti has made a life-altering move concerning his tennis career.

Catanzariti started picking up a racquet at an early age when he and his family traveled to tournaments for his sister, Gabrielle, who eventually went on to play at the University of Pittsburgh. By the age of 10, Catanzariti was invested in the sport full-time, giving up baseball so he could concentrate on his tennis future.

But as he grew older, there became fewer people in the area who could match his skill level.

"As he started to physically mature, there were fewer and fewer people whom he could hit around with," said Catanzariti's father, Alan.

Catanzariti trained at the Fox Chapel Golf Club with coaches Craig Perry and Mischa Kouznetsov and, although he was schooled online, he played his freshman year of high school at Mt. Lebanon, helping the Blue Devils win the 2011 WPIAL Class AAA team title.

But he was growing frustrated with the lack of hitting partners around the area, as well as the cross-town commute from Mt. Lebanon to Fox Chapel.

"It was rough on my mother," Catanzariti said. "It would be 30 minutes or more, depending on traffic, each way to practice. That would cut into my practice time and my school time. It was very frustrating."

Meanwhile, Kouznetsov had moved to College Park to coach at the Junior Tennis Champions Center, and the Catanzariti family had been down to visit him a few times.

Near the end of his first semester of his sophomore year of high school, Catanzariti decided to move to Maryland and train at the JTCC.

He admits that moving away from his family was tough at first, but his personality made the transition easier.

"I was definitely a little homesick at first, but I'm a pretty independent person so it wasn't too bad," Catanzariti said.

His tennis game began to flourish, however.

The JTCC has trained 16 players who have won national championship tournaments or achieved a No. 1 national ranking in the past five years. The center has trained future top professionals such as Vera Zvonareva, a U.S. Open and Wimbledon finalist.

Catanzariti has seen his recruiting ranking rise to No. 25 in the Class of 2014.

"He's gotten bigger, stronger and faster," Alan Catanzariti said. "But he's also matured mentally. He has a more professional approach to tennis."

His high ranking led the top teams, such as 2013 semifinalists Georgia and Ohio State, to come calling.

But after visiting the Aggies twice, the second time an official visit during the weekend of the thrilling Alabama-Texas A&M football game in September, Catanzariti decided his heart was with the Aggies, who lost to Ohio State in the Round of 16 this past spring.

"His goal is to play pro tennis," Alan Catanzariti said. "He thought they could get him there. The other thing is they have a great team. Texas A&M is a perennial powerhouse.

"He was interested in Georgia, Ohio State and Illinois, but I think Texas A&M was special for him."

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