In tennis, you don't move up the depth chart by backing down.
By keeping his sights set high and his game sharp, Nichols senior Jonah Epstein has managed to keep a hold of the No. 1 singles spot at Nichols for three years, which is as tough as hitting a running backhand.
His ascent was a steady one. As a sophomore, Epstein found the defending Monsignor Martin Association champion Boris Borovcanin, a senior now playing at the University of Rochester, standing in his path to No. 1 singles. It was thought Epstein was the lock at No. 2 that season, but there was a hotshot freshman with impressive credentials joining the team.
"It was common knowledge that this kid was good enough to press Jonah, but he wasn't thinking about No. 2, he was thinking about No. 1," said Nichols coach Bob Crowell. "He said, 'I'm going to beat him [Boris],' and he did. What a great attitude to have. He literally snatched the place from him."
Epstein won most of the challenge matches with Borovcanin that year and has played at No. 1 for three years. Among the region's top players, he put the final touches on a memorable high school career last week by ending the year 9-0, which means he lost only two matches in his final two years.
"I knew it was within reach for me, so I just went with it," Epstein said. "We were friendly off the court, but on the court, sometimes it got nasty. I like to always have an upper edge in everything, pretty much I'm proud of the accomplishments I've made."
Epstein lacks size at 5-foot-8, but he's unbelievably quick and has all the shots. Crowell said in high school most matches are lost -- not won -- by the player who makes the fewest mental and physical mistakes because they tend to play defensively. He said Epstein is an exception because in addition to being fundamentally sound he hits winners rather than trying to outlast opponents from the baseline and he puts unbearable pressure on his opponent.
He added he's an absolute gentleman on the court, has been a tremendous example to his teammates and has earned the respect of many.
Epstein will attend and play tennis at Skidmore College in the fall, a top 20 Division III program. A honors student at Nichols, he plans to study pre-med.
Epstein helped Nichols clinch the Monsignor Martin North Division title at 6-0 and finish 10-0 overall. He is the defending All-Catholic champion, but will not defend his title this weekend at the University at Buffalo. Instead, he will attend his brother Alex's graduation from St. Lawrence University. "I'd like to win it this year, but my brother only graduates once, and I'm going to do what I think is right," he said.
With Epstein out of the draw, that opens up things for Nichols' No. 2 player, sophomore Anthony DeRose, to keep the title at home.
Gow's current No. 1, sophomore Zach Miller, has wins over Orchard Park's and East Aurora's first singles players, suffering his only loss to Epstein. Gow's 8-1 record was tops in the Monsignor Martin's Division II.
*Monsignor Martin girls: The All-Catholic championships aren't taking any chances with rain as they are indoors both days, Saturday at Sportsplex and Sunday at Southtowns.
Carley Conway of Sacred Heart won it last year as a freshman and is a solid favorite to repeat. Freshman Madison Bradley of Nardin looks to challenge. Conway beat her twice this year, but the matches were competitive.
*Niagara Frontier League: Singles players Justin Canazzi of Grand Island and Jason Bolea of Niagara-Wheatfield will represent the NFL at sectionals. The doubles reps will be determined in a tournament Friday at Lew-Port.
North Tonawanda junior John Lemar (10-2) and his brother, sophomore Andrew Lemar (12-0), played singles all season, but will compete in sectionals as a doubles team. John is a two-time NFL doubles champion. The Jacks' No. 3 singles Nick Young went 12-0 this year.
Among the better doubles teams in the NFL are Lockport's Baily Reid and J.J. Napoli, both sophomores, and the Grand Island duo of David Mohr and Phyllip Stallard.
*Niagara-Orleans League: Junior Chris Horgan of Medina hasn't dropped a set on the way to a 10-0 record. He was the league champion last year as a sophomore before losing to eventual Section VI champion Mike Kranz of Lancaster in the quarterfinals. He's been starting since he played second doubles as a seventh grader.
"The competition gets better as you get older, and once you get accustomed to the pace, you get confidence and you can be more on the offensive, and keep your opponent on his heels," he said. "I've added more pace [speed on the ball] and I've developed good topspin on my ground strokes."
The league features other top players Steve Hernandez of Roy-Hart, Jason Jolley of Newfane, Derek Fuerch of Barker and Zach Moxham of Wilson.
The N-O doubles tournament is Thursday and Friday at Medina starting with a round-robin. Sectionals singles players are decided by league record.
*CCAA: The CCAA singles and doubles tournament finals are Thursday at Jamestown Community College. It's expected to be a battle between top seeds senior Zach Eklum of Jamestown, eighth-grader Cooper Miller of Falconer, sophomore Matt Johnson of Suthwestern and junior Eric Olson of Maple Grove.
Olean went 12-0 to win CCAA I while Maple Grove took CCAA II at 10-0. Olean's top three in singles all season have been Ryan Tuggle-Haskins, Kevin Volz and Caton Charleston.
*ECIC: Orchard Park's 18-0 overall record includes two wins over Lancaster and a win over Nichols in the Gow Tournament.
The Quakers went 12-0 to win ECIC I for the eighth time in 10 years. Finishing undefeated in ECIC I were No. 3 singles Tommy Baldinger and the first doubles team of senior Dominic Eusanio and eighth-grader Ryan Coppola and the second doubles team of sophomore Kevin Zablonski and freshman Alex Korach.
OP qualified the doubles team of junior August Bruno and senior Sawyer Dina for Sectionals.
Junior Mike Rusk of Williamsville East, looks to take the ECIC title he won Saturday a step further, coming off his big win over Lancaster's Kranz in the final. Rusk won at doubles at last year's sectionals.
Williamsville South (11-0) will win ECIC II for the third year in a row with an undefeated record with a victory today at 4 p.m. against Williamsville East (10-1).
Amherst went 9-0 to dominate ECIC III. Eden (8-0) had a three-match lead over its closest opponent in ECIC IV. Seventh grader Harry Wang of Williamsville North is someone to watch. He grabbed the fifth and final spot at ECICs to advance to Sectionals.
Five of nine players are back from last year's state team: Kranz and Brian Chowanic of Lancaster, the Clarence doubles team of Kevin Layer and Joe Gentile, and Orchard Park left-hander Sawyer Dina. Chowanic and Dina have been to states twice. Chowanic is a battler, usually finding a way to win three-set matches.
The sectionals are May 22-23 at Lancaster.