Hampton tennis off to quick start in return to Class AA
Saturday, April 3, 2021 | 11:01 AM
After playing in a loaded Class AAA section for most of the past decade, the Talbots are competing in Class AA as part of the enrollment-based realignment.
Four-time defending WPIAL Class AAA champion Fox Chapel, perennial power Shady Side Academy and 2019 WPIAL semifinalist Allderdice no longer stand between Hampton and the postseason.
“This year, we have a real shot against everybody,” 12th-year coach Grant McKinney said. “That’s a big mental change.”
Junior Ethen Ho, the Talbots’ No. 1 singles player, agrees the new landscape gives the players confidence each time they step on the court.
“Knowing that we have a pretty good chance to at least make it to the playoffs is really nice,” he said. “We called (our section last year) the ‘Group of Death.’ It was really rough. We are feeling pretty good this year.”
The excitement is bolstered because there was no “last year.”
The Talbots were returning from Pine-Richland last March when they learned the spring season was canceled because of the burgeoning pandemic. They had played two matches.
“It was the first time we had a completely losing season,” McKinney said. “We were 0-2. That was the big joke. We went all year without winning a match.”
The Talbots can smile about it now. They have opened play in Section 3-AA with a 3-1 record, including 5-0 victories over Burrell, Springdale and 2019 Class AA champion Indiana.
Hampton (3-4) also is playing a demanding nonsection schedule that features heavyweight programs such as Peters Township, North Allegheny, Thomas Jefferson, Upper St. Clair and Quaker Valley.
“Whenever you go out and compete, it makes you better,” McKinney said. “We played (2019 PIAA Class AAA qualifier) Peters Township. We’re not going to beat Peters Township. But we went out, and we competed. We will take that, and we move onto the next one.”
Hampton has a roster of 10 seniors, eight freshmen, one junior and no sophomores. Following last year’s covid cancellation, experience is scarce.
“Out of the 19 guys, only two have ever played varsity tennis before this year,” McKinney said. “A lot of them don’t know even what it means to fight for a playoff spot.”
In the meantime, the Talbots will compete in the individual section tournaments. Section singles are April 7-8, and section doubles are April 20-21. Ho will be competing at sectionals for the first time as he tries to reach the WPIAL singles tournament.
“He hits a really hard ball off his forehand, and he has a good touch on the ball for his strokes,” McKinney said of his top player. “He’s put in a lot of time.”
Joining Ho with varsity experience is senior Adam Rothenberg, who is playing No. 2 singles. Senior Austin Smith is manning the No. 3 singles spot.
Seniors Teja Chaparala and Will Brandies are the No. 1 doubles team, and freshman Justin Rothenberg is joined by either senior Kiernan O’Neil or freshman Matthew Mason at No. 2 doubles. Another senior, Coray Bennett, provides depth.
Freshman Ben LaRusse, who would have been one of the team’s top singles players, is sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury.
“The freshmen are looking very good,” Adam Rothenberg said. “Almost as good as the seniors.”
Whether Hampton can place in the top four of Section 3-AA and clinch a WPIAL playoff berth remains to be seen. Other section foes are Highlands, which beat Hampton, 5-0, on March 17, North Catholic, a promising first-year program, Knoch, St. Joseph and Valley.
History is on the Talbots’ side. Last time they were a Class AA program, from 2007-12, they reached the WPIAL playoffs all six seasons and advanced to the finals in 2010, ’11 and ’12, losing to nemesis Sewickley Academy each time.
During its eight-year stay in Class AAA, Hampton reached the playoffs four times but never advanced past the WPIAL quarterfinals.
The Talbots visit North Allegheny on April 9 and take on St. Joseph, Franklin Regional and North Catholic in a five-day span starting April 15.
“We have a shot at making the playoffs,” McKinney said. “But if we don’t, I think the guys are just going to work hard and we’re looking forward to competing in a new section.”