WINCHESTER — The Handley boys’ tennis team faced a massive challenge at the beginning of the season after losing its top four players to graduation, but the Judges didn’t back down from it by any means en route to sweeping the Class 4 Northwestern District regular-season and tournament titles.

After each of their six singles players lost the opening sets of their matches in Wednesday’s Region 4C semifinals, the Judges were presented with an obstacle that was even more daunting. Handley wasn’t able to scale the mountain in front of it, but the Judges certainly gave their fans an effort to cheer about.

The Phoenix — who fell to the Judges in a match that lasted more than six hours in last year’s Region 4C final — needed just 95 minutes to beat Handley 5-0 on Wednesday at the Slaughter Tennis Pavilion. They clinched a state berth with the win and will play the winner of Thursday’s James Wood-Broad Run semifinal in next week’s Region 4C championship match. The Judges end the year 14-4.

Rock Ridge (17-3) returned its No. 3, 4 and 5 singles players — who are each part of its top four this year — and added three freshmen to its singles lineup.

“They’re a quality program and their coach does a great job there,” Handley coach Dan Jones said. “They just reload, kind of like we have. We just unfortunately didn’t reload as well as they have this year.”

For the most part, the Judges did pick up their play over the course of the match. Handley junior Carter Bessette won his second set to force a third set at No. 4 singles, sophomore Jack Boye won four games in the second set after being shut out in the first at No. 3, junior Geronimo Dib Ghys made the second set 10 minutes longer in a 6-0, 6-0 loss at No. 6, and senior Nathan Thomas didn’t finish his match but won four games in the second set after winning only two in the first set.

“Losing four seniors, we have a lot of inexperienced guys,” said Thomas, one of two returning starters on this year’s team along with junior Ty Dickson, who fell 6-1, 6-0 at No. 2 singles. “It’s easy to tell one thing they learned is that you’ve got to fight and you’ve got to earn it. They were really trying to earn it, so I’m proud of them for that.”

Jones said Handley’s postseason inexperience might have played a role in how the team started.

“I think the moment got the better of them at the beginning,” Jones said. “They battled back, but unfortunately we let them get a little too far ahead of us.”

Freshman Harsha Anthem won first at No. 6, Arjun Vangala followed at No. 2, then Akash Vangala followed quickly with a win at No. 3. Handley freshman William Brubaker had a promising start at No. 5 singles and led 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3, but after Brubaker squared the first set at 5-5 freshman Sathvik Mathi reeled off the last nine games of the match for a 7-5, 6-0 win to make it 4-0 Rock Ridge.

Attention then turned to the two matches closest to the concrete stands, and both matches were providing Handley fans with hope.

After losing the first set 6-4 to Aryan Dhiman, Bessette rebounded to take the second set 6-2.

“The first set he jumped on me pretty quick,” Bessette said. “He was playing well, pulling me around. My backhand wasn’t really there, so that was hard to compete with.

“Second set, we were both tired, but I started putting more balls in play. I knew he had to miss some at some point. Lucky for me, he missed more than a couple, so I think that definitely helped. I think he was a little excited, too. He comes out, hits me hard in the first set, I go down, and he was expecting me to fold. But I’m not going to fold.”

Bessette showed that attitude in the 10-point tiebreaker as well. Up 8-5, Dhiman hit a deep ball to Bessette’s backhand that forced Bessette behind the baseline and even with the doubles alley. Bessette hit the ball cross-court and Dhiman came up to try and volley it, but us attempt went into the net.

Bessette won the next two points to make it 8-8. Two points later, Bessette and Dhiman exhanged hard-hit overhead volleys at the net, and Bessette thought Dhiman’s sailed long, which would have made the score 9-9. But the USTA official happened to be standing off the court right by where the ball landed. Dhiman asked the official about it, and he ruled that it was in to set off a Phoenix celebration. That was the clinching point, so Thomas’ match at No. 1 singles was not played to a conclusion.

“It’s hard to see the season go down that way, but I was close to the net and [the official] was close to the ball,” Bessette said. “[Dhiman] played a great match.”

It was an unusual end to the season for Handley, which is used to playing in the state tournament. The Judges were glad they were able to keep things normal despite their graduation losses in the district, however. Handley beat every district foe and punctuated their season with 5-0 wins over Kettle Run (semifinals) and James Wood (final) in the district tournament.

Bessette said the suggestion in a preseason article that the Judges’ rein in the district could possibly come to an end provided motivation this year.

“When we played James Wood [a week after the article] in a district match here, that was all that was going through my mind was that I’m not going to let them beat us,” Bessette said. “I’m going to do my part to take home that district championship.

“It was a great season. I had a ton of fun. First year playing in the top six. Just some great memories.”

Thomas is the only senior in Handley’s top six, and he was glad to see his younger teammates step up their games with more responsibility this year.

“Something I told them after the match is that we really need to be proud of this season, because people really thought we wouldn’t be good at all,” Thomas said.

“I think our kids definitely improved throughout the year,” Jones said. “They battled. They won the district [regular season]. They won the tournament title. We had the [district] singles and doubles winner. Successful year. Not what our standard is for this program, but still a very successful year. The kids showed a lot of grit and worked hard to get where they are.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at

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