North Xtra: Section shows tennis strength in WPIAL

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Due to a tie for the final playoff spot in Class AA Section 3, four teams in the conference instead of the customary three qualified for the WPIAL Class AA team tennis tournament.

The WPIAL may want to make a new rule where four or even five teams from Section 3 qualify every year.

The four WPIAL qualifiers from Section 3 -- Sewickley Academy, Mars Area, Vincentian Academy and Quaker Valley -- all advanced to the semifinals, with Sewickley beating Mars for its 10th consecutive WPIAL title in the final last Thursday.

Vincentian beat Quaker Valley in the consolation match to snatch the final PIAA qualifying spot. To add further credence, two of the three that advanced to the PIAA tournament won their first-round matches. Mars swept Elk County Catholic, 5-0, Sewickley blanked Windber, 5-0, but Vincentian lost to Warren, 4-1.

"Our section dominated," Vincentian coach Al Skorupka said. "Sewickley and Quaker Valley have always been strong, and now Mars and Vincentian are stepping up to the plate and adding to the team competition. It's very exciting."

It's the third consecutive season that all three PIAA Class AA qualifiers have come from Section 3, but there are new faces this season.

Hampton, which finished second to Sewickley in the WPIAL each of the past three years, was bumped up from Class AA Section 3 to Class AAA Section 2 this season.

Meanwhile, Winchester Thurston, which finished third in the WPIAL in 2011 and 2012 and returned four starters from last season's team, could only muster a fifth-place finish in the "section of doom."

"Winchester Thurston has a very, very strong program and they couldn't even make the playoffs," Sewickley Academy coach Whitney Snyder said. "We have tremendous depth in our section."

The section's depth caused the teams' records in the section, other than Sewickley's, to be less stellar than some of the WPIAL qualifiers from other Class AA sections.

So while the Panthers were awarded the No. 1 seed in the WPIAL tournament, Mars was seeded seventh, Vincentian was 11th and Quaker Valley 12th.

But no matter, the teams rolled on anyway. Mars steamrolled No. 2 seed Thomas Jefferson, a section champion, in the quarterfinals, 5-0.

Quaker Valley knocked off No. 5 seed Blackhawk and No. 4 Southmoreland on its way to the semifinals.

Vincentian topped No. 6 Greensburg Central Catholic, 5-0, before eking past No. 3 Valley, 3-2, in the quarterfinals.

"Section 3 is a dominating section with five very competitive teams," Valley coach Rachael Link said.

"We knew that walking into our match against [Vincentian]. We knew that coming from Section 3, the seed they earned didn't matter."

The section's dominance likely won't change anytime soon.

Sewickley will graduate four seniors, but the Panthers haven't won 10 consecutive titles without having phenomenal depth.

Vincentian has its top player, WPIAL singles champion Derek Chen, for two more seasons.

Quaker Valley will return three starters next season, including No. 1 player Jeremy Baumwell.

But the most interesting team moving forward may be Mars. The Planets' trip to the WPIAL final was their first since 1999, and they did so without a senior in their starting lineup.

Mars threw out four freshmen, two sophomores and a junior against Sewickley last Thursday.

Two of the freshmen, Josh Raymundo and Aaron Gruber, are Mars' top two players and finished second to Sewickley's Colin Kaye and Will Kleeman at the WPIAL Class AA doubles tournament.

Raymundo also defeated Chen in the section singles championship match, but couldn't compete at the WPIAL tournament due to an appendicitis attack.

"Mars is going to be very, very good next season," Snyder said.

With the amount of talent returning, it's a safe bet that, barring injuries or defections, the 2014 WPIAL Class AA boys team champion might well come from the group of teams in Section 3 once again.

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