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Charlie Garfinkel: Stan, Conway tops among area women tennis players

Smaranda Stan, who was born in Romania, and Carlee Conway, a Grand Island resident, are WNY’s No. 1 co-ranked women’s tennis players for 2014.

Stan defeated Conway, 6-4, 6-2, in the Muny Hard Court finals at Delaware Park. A few weeks later Conway turned the tables by defeating Stan 7-5, 7-5 in the Buffalo City Open Clay Court Championships at Miller Tennis Center.

Both women started playing tennis when they were about 4 years old. Stan’s father was a teaching pro in Romania and Stan would hit against a backboard at her father’s club almost every day. Conway’s grandmother lived next door to Carlee and had a tennis court in her back yard. Carlee would hit with any family member who was available.

Stan, a three-time runner-up in the Muny Open Championships in addition to winning this year, started playing tournaments in Romania before she was 7 years old. Not surprisingly, she won most of the 8 & under tournaments that she played in. She rarely dropped a set, let alone a match in the 10 & Under division. As she continued to improve she was ranked first in her region throughout the 15-16 and 17-18 divisions and in the top ten in her country, winning over 100 trophies. She then advanced to women’s play where she attained a top 20 ranking.

After high school she virtually stopped playing for a few months because colleges in Romania do not have tennis teams. Shortly after, she received a call from Andreea Novaceanu, a long time friend and competitor from Romania, who was on a full academic and tennis scholarship at the University at Buffalo. “Andreea told me what a great school UB was, about the strong academics, the outstanding women’s tennis team, and their legendary coach, Cathy Twist,” Stan said.

“Andrea put me in touch with Coach Twist and we had a wonderful conversation,” Stan said. “Twist told me how thrilled she would be to have me on the tennis team and I would be offered a full scholarship. I owe a great amount of gratitude to Andreea for saying so many complimentary things about my tennis game and who I was as a person.”

Coach Twist proved to be everything that Andreea had said about her. “Cathy became my mentor” Stan said. “She was concerned about me both as a tennis player and as a person.” Stan noted that playing at UB at such a high level was the best experience of her life. She won the deciding match for a 4-3 victory in the Mid-American Conference Tennis Championships. Her win enabled UB’s women’s tennis team to win the first MAC Championship in any sport in either the men’s or women’s division. (The UB men’s tennis team matched the women by winning the MAC title two years ago.)

After graduation, Stan started teaching tennis at the Miller Tennis Center. She loved the instant gratification of helping people and seeing them improve and knowing that they had an enjoyable experience. Stan especially loved seeing youngsters that she had taught grow as individuals and tennis players.

“Watching my dad teach and coach for many years combined with my own teaching and playing experiences were instrumental in my wanting to become a tennis coach at a university, preferably Division I.” Stan said. Presently, she is assistant women’s tennis coach at UB and is pursuing her master’s degree at UB.

Carlee Conway’s rate of improvement over the past couple of years has been remarkable. At Sacred Heart Academy she set a record that may never be broken. During four years at the school she won 56 straight dual matches over a four-year period without ever losing a set. She was also Catholic singles champion four times.

In addition to winning the Muny Open Singles title in 2013 and the City Open this year she won the Southern International Tennis Association’s Singles and Doubles Championships in September. Last October she finished sixth in the ITA Nationals, losing in the quarterfinals to the eventual winner.

At the age of 5 she started taking group lessons at the Village Glen and started playing 10 & Under tournaments a couple of years later. She continued to improve and was ranked in the top 30 in the East in the 14 & Under division. She took lessons from many of the top pros in the area. They included Todd Miller at Miller Tennis Center, Tom LaPenna at Sportsplex, and Lee Nickell, the UB men’s coach.

“Although I took lessons from different pros I was able to learn something valuable from each of them,” Conway said. Presently, she has been taking lessons from only one coach; Mark Szafnicki, the athletic director and tennis Coach at Gow School.

“Mr. Szafnicki is an excellent tennis player,” Conway said. “More important, he is a teacher first and a coach second. His knowledge of the game and ability to understand the nuances of the game are outstanding. He sets up strategies for my matches, discusses my game plans, and shows me how to execute what we have discussed.”

Conway’s serve, forehand, and net game are her main strengths. She is one of the few tennis players locally who will serve and volley, (hitting the ball in the air before it bounces) which can be quite disconcerting to her opponents.

Presently, Conway is a student at Marion Military Institute in Marion, Ala., that plays Division I junior tennis. Conway is one of the tennis stars of the team at the school which prepares students for four service academies: Air Force, West Point, Naval and Coast Guard Academies. She is being sponsored by the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation for a prep year to admission to Annapolis next fall.

“I want to provide myself with a challenge and prove that I can accomplish anything that I want to. I want to be a pilot because it is unique to the Navy.”