North Xtra: Depth makes Shady Side a WPIAL threat

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Shady Side Academy has won three of the past four WPIAL Class AAA boys tennis team championships, and has qualified for the PIAA tournament in six of the past seven years.

So when Indians' coach Tom Mercer says this season's team is his deepest yet, that's quite the statement.

"This is our deepest team for sure," Mercer said. "I've never had a player who started the [previous] year who I think didn't lose a match who isn't [starting] this year. I would say we have the best eighth player in the state."

Mercer was referring to junior Naveen Jain, who played No. 2 doubles as a sophomore for the Indians last season. But spots in the seven-man starting lineup are limited, because the Indians lost just one of their top eight players from last season, No. 1 singles player Alok Nimgaonkar.

Shady Side Academy added a talented newcomer, however, to fill the void in singles, as 2013 WPIAL Class AA singles champion Derek Chen transferred from Vincentian. Chen is currently playing No. 2 singles for the Indians.

"His addition has helped; he's definitely added to the team," Mercer said. "But it made my job a little more difficult because I have eight players capable of starting for this team now."

Cooper Kann, who played No. 3 singles for the Indians as a freshman, has moved up to take Nimgaonkar's spot at No. 1 singles this season. He finished third in the Class AAA Section 3 tournament two weeks ago, beating Chen in the consolation final, to qualify for the WPIAL tournament.

Eric Grubbs, who played No. 2 singles last season, is slotted in the No. 3 position this season.

Grubbs' brother, Chris, and Kann's cousin, Michael, play together at No. 1 doubles, just as they did last season. Chris Grubbs won the past two WPIAL Class AAA doubles championships paired with Nimgaonkar.

Henry Cohen is playing No. 2 doubles for the second season in a row and is paired with senior Sahil Bahri.

Mercer said the team's challenge matches were so close throughout the lineup that virtually any of the doubles players could be playing singles, and vice versa. He said that depth gives the Indians a great shot at picking up points from the bottom up.

"We play five matches and you can go down the list and our best chance for a point is at No. 2 doubles, then No. 1 doubles, and so on.

"Cooper has really come on, and he can play with the top players at No. 1 singles, but we probably don't have a top-10 WPIAL singles player. In high school, though, you only need to win three of five matches."

Shady Side Academy has yet to lose this season, its best win coming against Central Catholic and its one-two punch of two-time WPIAL singles champion Adam Blasinsky and WPIAL third-place finisher Mike Santa Lucia.

Mercer said he is trying to schedule a few non-section matches against the traditional powers in Class AAA, such as Mt. Lebanon, but the poor weather and the tight window to fit in all of the team's section matches prior to the WPIAL team tournament make his efforts difficult.

Mercer isn't concerned, however, about his team's preparedness for the district tournament in a few weeks.

"I feel like our team has the experience," Mercer said. "All the guys in our lineup have been to states, and I'm confident that we'll play well once we get to the WPIAL tournament."

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