BLACKSBURG — Handley’s Jack Volinsky says he and his teammate Nick Mueller have been fortunate to play for two “dream teams.”
As freshmen, the two were part of an unbeaten Judges squad in 2016, led by state champion Parker Wilson, that lost just one postseason point in drubbing every opponent on the way to a Class 4 title.
As seniors, they were part of another dominant group that left several standout programs in its wake.
And like the 2016 team, Handley hammered its final foe in the state championship match, winning 5-0 against Hanover on Saturday at Virginia Tech’s Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center.
“We started with a dream team and ended with a dream team,” said Volinsky, who joined to win a state doubles title on Friday. “In reading the paper, I remember Parker Wilson saying my freshman year was a dream team. We’ve run through it and I think that talent-wise the team my freshman year would probably beat my senior team. But, I think that with heart and character we’re a dream team.”
The Judges (22-0) polished off the Hawks, also last year’s state runner-up, after navigating the tough Western half of the state bracket. Along the way, Handley knocked off defending state champion Riverside (5-0), longtime nemesis E.C. Glass (5-1) and Blacksburg (5-2), who eliminated the Judges in the state quarterfinals last year.
“It’s great,” said Mueller after Saturday’s romp. “It’s everything I’ve worked toward. No words describe it.”
“That felt good. That felt really good,” said junior Mercer Love, who along with Mueller and Volinsky were part of a 2017 team the fell to Rock Ridge in the state title match. “There have been some great teams that have come by and never gotten to win a state championship. To be finally able to get one after getting so close my freshman and sophomore years, it feels good to finally get one. It’s huge. I haven’t stopped smiling.”
The Judges advanced to the quarterfinals last year without Mueller, who spent the school year at a tennis academy in Florida.
With his return, expectations were high.
“This was our year,” junior James Gullett said. “This is the year that we were saying that we were going to go to states and do well. We’re really happy that it worked out for us.”
“Worked out” is a little of an understatement as the championship match was nothing more than a victory lap for the Judges.
The clash, moved to the Virginia Tech facility from Salem because of rain, was played on three courts because the facility’s other three courts were in use for the girls’ Class 4 title.
Play began with each team’s top three singles players and from the start it was no contest.
Volinsky, the Judges’ No. 2 player, barely seemed like he was on the court. His big serve, slice strokes, and aggressive game were perfect for the speedy surface. He trounced Ethan Belote 6-0, 6-0 in a match that lasted about a half hour.
“It was fast,” Volinsky said of the surface. “It was right where I like it.”
The usually anxious Volinsky said he was not nervous against Belote, who was an opponent in the state doubles final that Mueller and Volinsky had won 6-0, 6-0 a day earlier.
“Today, no. I was just having a good attitude,” Volinsky said. “I think I finally learned to enjoy a match. I wanted to go out and have fun. It was my last match.”
The match at No. 1 didn’t last much longer. Mueller met Ross Violi, also a loser in the state singles semifinals. The difference was that Mueller lost to eventual champion Frank Thompson in three sets, while Violi fell to Jamestown’s Jordan Deberry, who Thompson destroyed in the final.
Mueller, who has played often at the Tech facility, just overwhelmed Violi, who he had seen the previous day in the doubles final.
“It definitely just showed me exactly how he played and his tendencies and all of that,” Mueller said of the doubles. “It helped going into singles.”
Mueller’s powerful and fluid groundstrokes carved up Violi.
With his senior up 6-0, 5-0, Handley coach Dan Jones emphasized to Mueller that the next game was probably the last of his high school career.
Mueller hit several winners as the game went to deuce on Violi’s serve. On the final match point, Mueller actually played a second serve that was clearly long.
“I didn’t want to go out on a double fault,” explained Mueller, who ended his career at Handley having never lost a singles match in team play. “He missed the next one anyway.”
Mercer Love made it three straight romps. The left-hander’s power game blitzed Charles Adams 6-1, 6-1.
Love, who lost a tough match in the semifinals against Blacksburg, said he benefited from the competitive postseason clashes heading into Saturday’s final.
“It was great to be able to have such close matches leading up to this match,” Love said. “No matter which team you are playing, it still is a state championship and there is a lot of pressure to perform at your highest.”
Having taken over at Court 2 following Volinsky’s win, No. 4 Daniel Botros kept the avalanche going. Playing serve-and-volley tennis that would have made John McEnroe proud, Botros throttled Carson Brooks 6-0, 6-1.
“He wasn’t really putting any pressure on me from the baseline,” said Botros, a sophomore. “I had to come to net and cut off the points or else he would out-rally me I felt.”
With Botros’ victory, the race was on to see who would secure the clinching point.
No. 5 Gullett had a head start on No. 6 Brendan Love, but ran into some trouble in the opening set. He trailed Vance Woolard 4-2 until making an adjustment. Once he made that change, it was no contest. He ripped off the final 10 games to win 6-4, 6-0.
“He had a really good backhand lob, a moonball type of thing,” Gullett explained. “I was having trouble getting that back. I hit harder and went for more aggressive shots so he couldn’t have total control of the point.”
Meanwhile, Brendan Love was cruising. He was up 6-1, 3-1 against Noah Cole when Gullett’s victory ended play.
It was another strong postseason performance for the freshman, who moved into the Top 6 midway through the season.
“I think all of the experience and all of the matches and practicing every day has really helped my game,” Brendan Love said.
His improvement was not lost on his older brother.
“He’s gotten confident,” Mercer Love said. “He’s started to play looser again and to realize each match is just another match. … He’s going to keep improving. I have no idea how good he is going to get. He’s someone to watch out for.”
Gullett’s clinching point was a bit anticlimactic. With his teammates lined up in a hallway ready to charge after the final point, Gullett won his match on a double fault into the net.
Gullett initially seemed surprised that the season would end that way. And after he shook hands with Woolard, the Judges stormed the court to celebrate.
“It was crazy,” Gullett said. “It was just really exciting.”
Jones said he was proud of the team, which has won two titles in his five seasons.
“It’s always exciting for the kids when hard work pays off,” Jones said. “It was great to see the kids excited, to see them play well and to see them have the opportunity to play in a great venue like this.”
Jones, named the school’s new head football coach last summer, could have opted out of coaching tennis but wanted to stay.
“One, I wanted all of the kids to see that being a part of multiple sports is important,” Jones explained. “But two, it’s the program itself — kids come back from the past and kids who are hopefully going to get into it. It’s a special thing to be a part of and a great thing to be around these kids and see them be so successful.”
While enjoying the victory Saturday, the Judges knew that Mueller and Volinsky will be gone when they try to defend their title next spring.
Mueller is headed to Richmond to play collegiately, while Volinsky hopes to walk onto the team at the U.S. Naval Academy.
They went out in style on Saturday.
“It’s great. I think we’ve both had very good careers,” Mueller said. “It’s definitely a great way to end them.”
“This weekend was great, with yesterday (the doubles title),” Volinsky said. “It was nice to go out with a bang.”
Jones and the Judges said the two will be sorely missed.
“We’re going to miss them next year for sure, their leadership more than anything,” Jones said. “Of course, their ability on the court is pretty nice, but their leadership has been really helpful for our program.”
“Oh, man. Jack is such an amazing leader and Nick is such a great guy,” Mercer Love said. “All of the seniors, we are going to miss so much — not only because of their tennis abilities but just because of the people they are and the people we hope to become.”
The Judges return the Love brothers, Botros and Gullett for next season and still hope to challenge for a title.
“I think we all know that we still have more great accomplishments in us,” Mercer Love said. “We know that we can keep pushing if we keep working for it.”
But on Saturday, they wanted to savor what was a “dream” season.
“We had a perfect balance of hard work and sense of humor,” Volinsky said. “We never really had drama. Everybody got along. Everybody made jokes. People could take jokes about themselves. … But when it was really the time to play and practice we got serious. I think that’s the biggest thing — we have a really hard work ethic.”