WINCHESTER — From the beginning of the boys’ tennis season, it has seemed like Handley and Blacksburg were destined to clash in the Class 4 semifinals.
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday at the Slaughter Tennis Pavilion, the collision is set.
The Judges (20-0) made the matchup official with a 5-1 rout of Region 4D runner-up E.C. Glass on Thursday. The Bruins took out defending state champion Riverside 5-3 earlier in the day. Handley had defeated Riverside 5-0 in the Region 4C championship on Monday, while Blacksburg defeated E.C. Glass 5-2 in the Region 4D final.
The Bruins, who eliminated the Judges in the state quarterfinals last season, are led by defending state singles and doubles champion Frank Thompson, son of Virginia Tech men’s tennis coach Jim Thompson.
“It’s a great match,” said Handley’s No. 1 player Nick Mueller, who could face Thompson four times (twice on Tuesday and in the state singles and doubles individual semifinals) in the next week. “They’re a really good team. I’m looking forward to it. I’m very excited.”
“We know they are a really good team,” No. 2 singles player Jack Volinsky added. “We didn’t make it this far last year because of them. We’re excited. The hay is in the barn. There’s nothing much we can do but prepare the best that we can and keep everybody healthy.”
The Judges showed their muster Thursday in taking out the Hilltoppers, who entered the clash with a 15-1 record, in roughly 90 minutes.
“We played well,” Handley coach Dan Jones said. “They are a very good program. They’ve kind of been our nemesis over the years. It was nice to get a win against them.”
Handley took control quickly against the Hilltoppers, racing to big leads in four of the six singles matches.
Mueller, who has not given up more than one game in any set this season, was dominant against E.C. Glass sophomore Wolfgang Ploch, who has outstanding court coverage to go along with different looking, but effective groundstrokes.
Mueller faced three break points in the opening game of the match, but saved each and cruised from there in a dominating 6-1, 6-1 victory.
“It was definitely good because I read in the report that he did the same thing against Frank [Thompson],” Mueller said of the first game saves. “He broke him the first game when they played in the region final. It was big to get through that and it kind of gave me confidence to get through the rest of the match.”
Mueller had the speedy Ploch racing from sideline to sideline to chase down the Handley senior’s well-placed and well-struck groundstrokes.
“He was really quick,” Mueller said. “He was unorthodox and an interesting kid to play. He was a good player. ... I played well. It is definitely where I want to be going into next week.”
Handley’s youngest player put the next point on the board. Brendan Love, coming off a three-set win on Monday against Riverside, overpowered the Hilltoppers’ B.G. Scott 6-1, 6-0 at No. 6 singles.
“That match against Riverside showed him,” Jones said of his freshman. “Some kids need a little more experience and some learn quickly. He showed today, that was good experience and a good match to build off of. He just continued to build confidence and that’s what you have got to do.”
After exchanging service breaks early, Volinsky pulled away for a 6-2, 6-2 triumph against Sam Hite.
“I knew what I needed to do throughout the match,” Volinsky said. “There wasn’t anything special that I really needed to do.”
James Gullett pulled the Judges within the brink of clinching the victory with a 6-3, 6-2 win at No. 5 singles. Leading 4-3 in the opening set, Gullett won five straight games to take control.
The Hilltoppers finally got on the board at No. 4 singles. Owen Selden won a slugfest against Handley’s Daniel Botros 6-4, 6-4.
“That kid played well,” Jones said of Selden. “He played a great match. I don’t think that Daniel played bad. That kid just played really well.”
The deciding singles point went to No. 3 Mercer Love, but it did not come easy in a roller-coaster match against Spencer Knight.
In fact, Love trailed 5-1 in the opening set, but somehow got things turned around and won six straight games to close out the set 7-5.
“I started to not going for so much and he started making mistakes,” Love said of the rally. “You’ve just got to get through the bad parts of the match and stick with the good parts as long as you can. ... You’ve got to get out of your own head. You’ve got to slow things down. Make sure you’re breathing and hit your basic shots. And, it’s a little bit of luck, too.”
Mercer Love said one thing that gave him motivation was seeing his younger brother Brendan, who the team calls “Baby Love,” win so easily.
“I saw him win that and I was like, ‘He did that well. He killed his guy. I can do the same. I can fight back and get this,’” Mercer Love said.
He raced out to a 3-0 lead in the second set only to see Knight rally to tie the score. Love pushed the lead to 5-3, but again Knight tied it at 5-5. Finally, Love held serve then broke Knight. A big forehand winner set up match point and Knight hit a ball long to give Love the second set 7-5.
“The second set I did not feel good,” Mercer Love admitted. “I kind of felt sick actually, but you’ve got to get through it any way you can.
“Everyone has bad days. But if you can figure out a way to win in your bad days, that’s what will make you a better tennis player.”
On Tuesday, obviously the premier matchup will be between Mueller and Thompson, two players who are going to play at the Division I level in college. Mueller is headed to Richmond and Thompson will play for his father.
“We played a long, long time ago and he got me in a real tight two-setter,” Mueller said. “I didn’t play my best then, but hopefully we can have a good match again.”
The Judges have fared slightly better against common opponents, but Jones said those scores mean little.
“It’s just matchups,” Jones said. “Just because they won at a certain spot, you don’t know how or why.”
The Judges, who have clinched every match in the postseason in singles play, don’t expect that to happen again. Jones said practices today and Monday will emphasize doubles, which is nothing new.
“We’ve done a lot for doubles all year,” Volinsky said. “That was big focus for all of our practices, especially recently. We’ve trained really hard for that and everybody has really good chemistry. We’ll be pretty good. We will put up a fight.”
And Tuesday’s battle could have the feel of a state title clash, even though it is a semifinal.
“Whoever ends up being in the state finals, they’ve earned their way to that spot,” Mercer Love said. “They’re going to be a good team. That being said, we also know if there’s any other team that can get us it will be Blacksburg. We know that will be the match. Having a home court advantage in that match is all that I can ask for.”
“Hopefully our kids are saying it’s just another match,” Jones added. “They can’t look at it as a bigger match than what it is. It’s nine points. The first one to five is what’s important and it doesn’t matter how you get there.
“Just like today, you are going to have people play well. They’re going to get their points, games and maybe a set. It’s just who plays well longer that is going to determine that match.”