The goal is to earn a spot on the plane in order to experience the high school tennis getaway of a lifetime: the right to compete at the home of the U.S. Open in New York City.
Getting to play a match at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing just like world-class players Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova sounds pretty cool, but as senior Zander Korach and junior Dan Freilicher discovered last year, it’s easier said than done.
The Orchard Park doubles team came within a hair of earning the trip downstate, only to see their spot on the plane go to Bryce and Jack Payne of Panama. The Paynes rallied for a three-set win over Korach and Freilicher in the third-place match at the Section VI Tournament.
Only the top three finishers in singles and doubles at sectionals qualify for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association tournament at the National Tennis Center (May 28-30).
The Quakers duo holds no hard feelings toward the Paynes because the Paynes played better than they did on key points in the match and deserved to win.
Still, that doesn’t mean the defeat sits well with Korach and Freilicher. They have wanted to do something about that loss since May 23, 2014.
They finally get their chance beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the University at Buffalo during the first day of the ECIC Championships. Korach and Freilicher earned the top seed in doubles for the league tournament, which determines who will get a chance to compete in the Section VI Championship Tournament. The top five finishers in singles and doubles will advance to the sectional meet, which starts Monday at Lancaster.
“It’s definitely motivation for this year,” Korach said of the loss.
Avenging the past is not Freilicher’s only motivation. He wants to help his partner have a senior year to remember. That includes a trip to the Big Apple.
“This is huge,” Freilicher said. “It’s his last year. We thought we’d be able to go twice in a row. I feel like this year we’ve been playing together a lot. We feel we can do really well and that would set me up nicely for next year.”
Korach and Freilicher played first and second singles during the regular season, helping the Quakers to their seventh ECIC Division I title in a row and 31st overall in coach Terry McMahon’s 40 seasons.
“They’re the leaders of this team,” McMahon said of his co-captains.
Unlike last season, when they learned before ECICs they were going to be OP’s second entrant in the doubles competition, they’ve known for a while they were playing together during the postseason. Korach and Freilicher have prepared by practicing at times against OP’s top regular-season doubles team.
Korach and Freilicher won those encounters, which not only enabled them to get in some work but also aided the development of teammates Cole Wilkinson and Declan Watson.
Wilkinson will be on OP’s other doubles entry for ECICs but paired with Kyle Schmitt. Watson, an eighth-grader with a lot of game, will try his luck in the singles tournament along with seventh-grader Noah Sayoc.
Korach and Freilicher may have the best chance to earn a spot on the plane. They are determined to live up to Orchard Park’s rich tennis tradition.
“It’s definitely something we have to think about every year … how storied of a team this is and the legacy we’re following,” Korach said. “It’s helped us become better players.”
“We just want to beat everyone in front of us and then that will work itself out,” Freilicher said.
The three doubles teams that represented Section VI at states last year all graduated. Other contenders at ECICs include Williamsville North’s James Schaab and Michal Muzyk. They lost in the sectional quarterfinals last season and will be the second seed in the tournament. Prithvi Prasanna and Jason Berkun of Williamsville East earned the No. 4 seed.
Chasing Jack and Mike
All signs point toward the ECIC and Section VI singles title chases coming down to juniors Jack McClaren of East Aurora and Mike Kessler of Williamsville North.
Both made the trip to states last spring, with McClaren losing in the sectional final to Hamburg’s Tim Kane. McClaren and Kessler are unbeaten and have not met this season. The only time they’ve faced each other was last year during the ECIC Tournament with McClaren earning the win.
“It would be a massive-size upset if the two didn’t go back to states this year,” ECIC Chairman and Sweet Home coach Brian Koziol said. “Jack has clearly been the best player all year.”
How has McClaren stood out above the rest?
“He plays year round, his game just keeps getting better,” East Aurora coach John Hycner said. “He’s just consistent. He doesn’t make mistakes. … This year it’s really all come together, backhand, serve, volley … Mentally he’s very, very strong. He doesn’t let things rattle him. He just goes out there and takes care of business and plays really consistent tennis. His game is just at an extremely high level right now. He always feels he can go one level higher than he is and that’s what sets him apart from his peers.”
That doesn’t mean Kessler’s chopped liver.
Kessler has been on varsity since eighth grade and has participated in sectionals each season. He made the breakthrough in reaching states for the first time last year by placing third in singles at sectionals.
“He’s been playing very, very strong all season,” North coach Mike Vendetti said. “He had two very impressive wins over Zander Korach of Orchard Park and Zach Hynd from Clarence. All he needs to do is keep his composure, trust his game because he’s playing very clean. When his serve is on … he’s tough to beat. He knows how to construct the point.”
Hynd has made it to sectionals the last two seasons for Clarence. Another one to watch is Sweet Home’s Jonah Murphy, a freshman who is already one of the top singles players in the league.
Odds and ends
• In the Monsignor Martin Association, St. Joe’s broke through against rival Canisius, its first win over the Crusaders in seven seasons. Christian Arena is the Marauders’ No. 1 singles player and will be seeded third for the All-Catholic meet, which is slated for Saturday and Sunday at Nichols and Delaware Park.
Nichols star freshman Ross DeRose is expected to be seeded first and Ryan Coppola of Canisius should be seeded No. 2. Jesse Brodka has just one loss this season at second and third singles for St. Joe’s but will likely play doubles during the tournament, according to coach Jason Frey.
• Ramsi Talhouk of City Honors has won nearly 40 league matches without a loss since eighth grade, and the junior and three-time All-High champion is the favorite to represent the Buffalo Public Schools in sectionals for the fourth year in a row. The All-High Tournament starts at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at Delaware Park.
Others from the city league with a shot at advancing to sectionals include Hutch-Tech’s Darlin Ngoma at singles and the doubles team of Ryan Higgins and Jeffrey Nguyen.
• Cooper Miller of Falconer/Jamestown and Quinn White of Southwestern appear to be the favorites to represent the CCAA in the Section VI meet. Miller is unbeaten in league play while White’s only loss is to Miller. Both made it to the sectional quarterfinals last year. Jack Payne of Panama is another to keep an eye on.
• North Tonawanda eighth-grader Greg Hastings is 11-0 and the clear favorite to earn one of two spots in sectionals reserved for the Niagara Frontier League. In the Niagara-Orleans League, Medina sophomore Kristian Snyder is 10-0 and a favorite to reach sectionals out of the N-O Tournament.
• When Lake Shore beat Williamsville East on April 22 it was East’s first ECIC II loss since 2012.