East Xtra: Franklin Regional rallies to take section

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After missing two matches following the knife attack April 9 at Franklin Regional High School that had two of its players among the more seriously injured of the victims, the Panthers boys tennis team returned to the court the following week with matches against Connellsville and Greensburg Salem.

The team won both matches, then clinched a playoff spot last week with a 4-1 victory against Hempfield Area.

After the tragedy at the school earlier in the month, there was even more good news for the tennis team: The Panthers defeated section front-runners Greater Latrobe and Penn-Trafford to close the regular season at 12-2 (13-2 overall) and share the Section 1-AAA title with Latrobe.

It was the 17th title or co-title for Franklin coach Howard Fisher, who has been running the school's tennis program since 1980.

Just getting back on the court proved to be a great morale booster for the team members after what everyone at the school had gone through the previous week.

"It was tough at first, but I think [returning to the tennis court] helped us to get back out there together," senior captain Rohan Hattangady said. "We're like a family."

Hattangady has been key to the Panthers success this season. He played No. 1 singles last season, but the ascension of sophomore Rochan Ramesh has allowed him to fall back to No. 2 singles, where he hasn't lost a match in team play this season.

The only losses for Ramesh, meanwhile, have come against Greater Latrobe's Chad Kissell, the WPIAL Class AAA singles runner-up, and Penn-Trafford's Cullen Price, a four-time Class AAA Section 1 runner-up. Ramesh fell to Price in the section singles tournament semifinals, but bounced back with a victory against Kiski Area's Tyler Paunovich in the consolation final to qualify for the WPIAL tournament.

He also defeated Price in the rematch between the teams last week.

It's been quite a jump for Ramesh from 2013, when he started the year playing doubles before elevating himself into the singles lineup by the end of the season.

"He's the most improved player on our team and maybe the most improved player in the entire section," said Fisher.

Senior Alex Sebastian, who played doubles last season, rounds out the Panthers' singles lineup.

The trio has helped the Panthers get a huge advantage on most of the Class AAA competition this season.

"Singles is key to our success," Fisher said. "We get help from our doubles, but we have three solid singles players and that gives us a nice advantage against teams with the exception of Latrobe and Penn-Trafford."

The Wildcats and Warriors were the only teams to take down Franklin Regional. The Panthers lost both matches, 3-2, and both times it came down to a three-set match at first doubles. But they got some payback last week, winning both of the rematches. Franklin edged Latrobe, 3-2, and clinched the title with a 4-1 decision against Penn-Trafford.

Fisher said the Panthers have gotten contributions from all 10 varsity players. That success by committee was especially true at No. 2 doubles with seniors Andrew Kolson, Reno Casuccio and Eric Pierce and junior Ali Piracha combining efforts.

Hassan Chugtai has played No. 1 doubles most of the season and now pairs with another senior, Nathan Yu.

Yu played No. 2 doubles earlier this season as Chugtai played at No. 1 with sophomore Connor Warwick, who was one of the victims of the attack two weeks ago. Warwick is progressing and has been upgraded to fair condition but was still hospitalized as of Tuesday.

Sophomore Greg Keener, who plays on the Franklin Regional's junior varsity team, was the other player who was a victim. He was moved out of the Forbes Intensive Care Unit this week.

Hattangady said the team is playing the rest of this season for not just those two players, but all the victims of the attack.

"We are dedicating our season to all those who were injured in the school incident," Hattangady said.

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