Not too long ago, the Mid-Suburban League was churning out one top singles player after another, even after Palatine's Tom Hanus won the second of his two boys tennis state titles in 2001.
However, not since 2008, with Jonah Schwartz of Buffalo Grove, has the league seen a 5-8 seed at the state tournament. The closest has been a 9-16 from Hersey's Eric Klawitter during his senior year in 2010.
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Vincent Lin might be ready to break the spell this season, though, after his wonderful freshman season at Schaumburg last spring. In a strong season of USTA play, the Saxons sophomore finished up as the No. 10-ranked player in the Midwest in the under-16 division.
"He's easily the best this conference has to offer, as well as one of the top young players in the area," said Barrington coach John Roncone. "I feel that my guy (Varun Parekh) has gotten physically stronger and can locate his serve so much better than last year and put his opponent on the defensive at a higher rate. Along with Maciej (Niemcyzk) from Fremd, Carson Burke (Prospect) and a new player from Rolling Meadows (Mack Galvin), the MSL has some very able players at No. 1."
Schaumburg and Conant, with their top doubles team of Connor Sacks and Peter Itskovich coming off their first state appearance, both figure to be chasing Fremd and Barrington in the West. The Vikings, led by Niemczyk (the MSL's champ at No. 2 last season) and the No. 1 team of Eric Pohl and Sudneer Vundru may have a slight edge over the Broncos.
"We lost a few key guys from last year, but we've got some very good players back, some new guys ready to play at this level, and great chemistry, which should go a long way toward another successful year for us," said Fremd coach Matt Duncan.
In the MSL East, defending regular-season champ Buffalo Grove was hit hard with graduation losses, leaving coach Kevin Schrammel without much of last year's roster. That group helped the Bison to third place overall at the conference tournament and tied for second with Barrington in the final overall standings.
"We lost 12 kids, 9 of whom were starters, so there's a lot of new faces around this spring," said Schrammel, who is now the tournament director of the girls state tournament in the fall.
Schrammel, who believes Rolling Meadows can win it all in the MSL East, welcomes back sophomore Anton Levitin as his No. 1 after the first-year player came away with a sixth-place finish at the MSL tourney one year ago.
If everyone comes back for another season, Schrammel might be right on his call for the Mustangs to lift the division trophy, particularly if the aforementioned Galvin, a top 100 player at under-14 in the USTA rankings, makes a big imprint in the area tennis landscape.
Burke, who was fourth at the MSL tourney, and later a first-time player at the state tournament, is the best Prospect has to offer, while coach CeCe Cahill at Hersey lost eight seniors and will look to her No. 1 team of Brandon Stassen and Owen Connor to be the key figures in the Huskies' rebuilding effort.
The capture of the state trophy has become an obsession for just a select few teams over the last decade or so.
Hinsdale Central ran away from the field last May to win its 20th state title in program history and fourth since 2000.
New Trier is the sport's other main power, and the two have dominated for what seems forever, though storied programs such as Lake Forest, Deerfield and Glenbrook North have also celebrated championships.
As the talent pool has slowly shrunk at this same time in the MSL, so has been the number of top 10 finishes in the team race, with just Barrington and Palatine fighting their way into the picture.
Led by the aforementioned Cahill, the Broncos were a well-deserved third overall in 2000, behind then-sophomore singles star Adam Morgan and the dynamic doubles duo of Joel Petrick and Jeff Mandril. One year later, the Broncos finished fifth overall under Roncone in his first year in charge, while Josh Leighton, in his early years as head coach at Palatine (he's now head man at Deerfield) watch his brilliant singles player, Tom Hanus, win his second title in three years to help the Pirates finished 10th overall.
With the 1-2 singles punch of Brian Hanus and Jason Hanschmann, along with the doubles team of Brendon Misik and Josh Wittenberg, the Leighton-led Pirates won their own regional, then one week later tied four others for ninth place at the state tournament.
That's the last time an MSL club has seen the top 10.
"The MSL is still a very good tennis conference, and we have good coaching staffs and guys who know what they are doing," said Roncone. "The real issue is to challenge for a top 10 finish at state, you have to have an elite guy as your No. 1. If you have that, the rest of your lineup can fall into place, and if you're fortunate to get a few of your guys into the state tournament, that big-time player will get you a lot of points. And with the others, any points you get from there on out helps put you in a top 10 position."
Hinsdale Central has that big-time player with Joyce. The Red Dvils also have their top two doubles teams back, and, as usual, another player with a strong USTA background, Eddie Grabill. He steps into the spot previously held by Sam Bloom.
"Without a question, Central is the team to beat. In fact, they might set the record for overall team points at the tournament," sais New Trier coach Tad Eckert, who with a brilliant No. 1 in Robert Stineman (now playing at Stanford) earned back-to-back team titles before the Red Devils took control last season.
"My two best players are walking the hallways, not playing," jokes Eckert, who would be in line to challenge Central if both Thomas Fawcett and Aaron Hiltzik, Nos. 2 and 22 in the midwest, were in uniform for the Trevians.
The Trevians will likely be more dangerous in another year, but for now, Eckert will lean on Alex Galoustin as his No. 1 after the sophomore earned a 5-8 seed last spring.
Stevenson and Lake Forest both seem to have the depth and talent to carve up their opponents during the regular season, then look to steal the headlines away from Hinsdale Central in late May.
The Patriots are led by Jeremy Bush at singles, and with the addition of his younger brother Benjamin and newcomer Josh Lieberman, as well as the team of Colin Harvey and Andrew Komarov, perhaps the third-best doubles team after Central's top two, coach Tom Stanhope may have enough to eventually pin down a state title.
"Everyone feels Hinsdale is the team to beat, but with the guys we have back, and with Benjamin and Josh now with us, we might just be the only team that could challenge Hinsdale -- but that's a big if," says Stanhope.
Deerfield lost 2012 state champion Jason Brown (playing at Yale) but has a powerful 1-2 punch at singles in Toby Ma and Jack Kasbeer.
Meanwhile, central Illinois once again will have a trio of outstandings club ready to give it a go: Metamora, led by head coach Kelly Willard, followed by Morton and Peoria Richwoods.
Metamora, and especially the doubles team of Christoph Goettler and Mitchell Nguyen, impressed Roncone and Eckert recently when their teams traveled to play in the Redbirds Invite.
Morton's Grant and Todd Reiman are two-time state qualifiers, and went 6-2 at the state tournament last season.
Fans of the sport will truly miss the duo of Josh Cogan (Batavia) and Gordon Zhang (Naperville North), as these two superb players have moved on to Washington University and the University of Chicago, respectively, after setting countless records during a four-year run which saw each make the trip to the state tournament each year of their prep career.
Meets to remember
Benet/Downers Grove South Invite (April 6):
The premier early season tournament is played in a team format, and features state heavies Hinsdale Central, New Trier, Deerfield and local favorites Barrington and Benet, each who will compete for top honors in their respective conference tournaments later in the season. The reigning state champions from Central have one of the top singles players in the state in Joyce, while both Toby Ma and Jack Kasbeer hope to get a chance at the super soph, who finished fourth overall in his rookie year.
Knights-Huskie Invite (April 13):
There's always an interesting and strong field at this tournament. But this season, the highly rated club program from Highland Park will be just a shadow of what it's been recently after graduation ripped apart Steve Rudman's varsity roster. The superb doubles team of Zacko Brint and Danny Wynbrandt are gone for the Giants, leaving HP without a strong challenger both here, and in the state tournament in late May. Oak Park-River Forest, fifth overall last season, will be strong once again with senior Jeremy Dixon as its leader, while Barrington, Hersey and Prospect get a good look at Warren's three-time state qualifier Kristyan Trukov, who begins his quest for his best finish ever at the state tournament.
Deerfield Quad (April 14):
MSL champion Fremd will have a good idea where it stands with the elite in this high profile one-day affair as the host Warriors welcome North Suburban Conference Stevenson and Lake Forest, both of whom will be in the hunt for the team crown along with Hinsdale Central when things get serious at the state tournament. Vikings coach Matt Duncans saw his program claim a second consecutive conference title over Barrington a year ago, and he will be eager, in particular, to see how his four-year singles standout Maciej Neimcyzk competes with the aforementioned Ma, Kasbeer, Jeremy Bush from Stevenson, and Peter Tarwid of Lake Forest, who recently defeated Joyce in a USTA competition.
Pitchford '32' (April 26, 27):
The proverbial Who's Who in the tennis world come together in this massive two-day tournament, which functions as a kind of warm-up to the state tournament. This mini state meet is where you want to view most every top team and singles and doubles players in the state, and with a half dozen sites ready to welcome all of this talent, it is truly a tennis junkie's perfect viewing storm. All the best talent will play for top honors at host Hersey on Saturday afternoon. Hinsdale Central staked its claim to favorite status with a wonderful team effort last spring. What is particularly fun to watch is how coaches will tinker with their lineups here, hoping to find the right combination, especially at doubles, to give their players the best chance to grab a higher seed at state.
East Suburban Catholic Conference tournament (May 10):
Benet won its 19th title in program history last season, but long-time coach Michael Hand doesn't predict his club will grab No. 20 this year. "Carmel should be the favorite, us a close second, and after that, I am not sure anyone else is close," said Hand, who lost his top doubles team but still returns eight of his top 10 players, including sophomore Noah Read. Marian Catholic star and four-time ESCC champ Julian Childers is playing at Illinois, so the singles field here has finally opened up for others. Second-year coach Joe Lascon is in a bit of a rebuilding project at St. Viator as he returns just five players from last season's team. "We have some good talent back who we expect to grow and improve as the season goes on, and I am expecting seniors Sean Cooney and Patrick O'Malley to handle things for us pretty well at No. 1 doubles," said Lascon, who is excited to watch junior Ryan Abuel at No. 1 singles, as well as Jacob Nottioli in the No. 2 spot in the Lions' lineup.
MSL Conference tournament (May 9 through May 11):
Barrington coach John Roncone says his MSL West rival Fremd in the favorite to win it all for a third straight time, but the long-time and highly successful Broncos coach figures his lads won't go down without a fight. "It's always come down to the final match to decide the division title, especially during the past 3-4 years, and I woulnd't be surprised if it happens again when we meet," Roncone said. "But for now, (Fremd coach Matt Duncan) has plenty of pieces in place to be the team everyone will try to catch." Barrington still has a wonderful talent in Varun Parekh, who has starred at both singles and doubles for the Broncos, as well as Ben Adams, who returns for his senior year after a state qualifying year as a sophomore two years ago. Schaumburg sophomore Vincent Lin had a superb rookie season, winning MSL and sectional titles before earning three victories at the state tournament to finish 23-2 overall. There will be plenty of competition for the Saxons star to watch for, beginning with Neimczyk and Parekh, as well as 2012 state qualifier Carson Burke of Prospect and Rolling Meadows' Mack Galvin, also a USTA Midwest ranked player at under-14.
-- Mike Garofola