By Mike Garofola
Daily Herald Correspondent
Can anyone break up the MSL's top two?
With all due respect to the rest of the Mid-Suburban League, this has been a Fremd-Barrington conference for the past few seasons. These two sides have taken turns carrying away the big trophy at the end of the annual three-day conference tournament -- last year it was Fremd -- and even with a handful of sensational singles and doubles players which dot the other clubs in the league, in the end, it's still these two tennis giants which dominate the final standings at the end.
This year won't be any different, with the reigning champs the favorite as the regular season is about to begin. The Vikings will miss the MSL No. 1 singles champ Matt Burkhardt but coach Matt Duncan returns plenty from his championship club, including state qualifiers Nick Makowiecki and Maciej Niemcyzk, who will play singles through the week, then move over to doubles on the weekend, as they fine tune for another run in the postseason. "I was really impressed with the work all of the guys put in during the offseason, and how they all elevated their play, and I believe we have the makings for a very strong season, with some terrific results at the end," says Duncan. The Vikings also return another state qualifier, Erik Rosencrans, as well as Sudheer Varun and Eric Pohl, who were MSL champs at No. 3 doubles and Matt Buesing, who was one-half the championship team at No. 2.
The Broncos rode the success of top doubles team Ben Nuckles and George Coll for most of the season, and why not? The duo won the MSL crown, one week later the Schaumburg sectional title, then dropped a three-setter in the consolation bracket to Deerfield's Alec Siegel and Ben Shklyar, who fell one match short of playing for a fifth-place medal. "Ben and George were a great inspiration for us last year, and they proved to be quite a story during the last few weeks of the season," began head coach John Roncone. "Fortunately, we have George back, as well as Varun Parekh, both veterans, and terrific singles players, who'll give us a strong 1-2 duo at singles, then, hopefully emerge on the weekends as an equally strong No. 1 doubles team." Former state qualifier George Baker is back for his senior year and junior Erik Barns, brother of two-time state qualifier Matt, adds talent and depth at singles. The MSL champs at No. 4 doubles, Matt Swire and Mike Lilien, return. "Fremd is the team to beat, they have tremendous depth and a lot of their guys back, but we're excited about what we have, and hope to make a run at them at the end of the year," offered Roncone.
Conant head coach Amar Patel figures his team's strength will be with senior Spencer Fang, and his mates, Peter Itskovich and Connor Sacks, while the MSL East appears to be up-for-grabs once again with Buffalo Grove, Hersey, Prospect and Rolling Meadows all in the middle of the chase. The Bison lineup will be senior dominated, led by Ari Kazan, Steve Mazzoni and Vlad Zuperman, while the Knights are led by sophomore Carson Burke, who was third overall at No. 1 singles at the MSL tournament. CeCe Cahill says her second Hersey club will be stronger than last year and the former highly successful Barrington head coach before Roncone lists seniors Robin Shin and Jake Wendell as her top team at No. 1 doubles.
A look around the state
New Trier finished so far in front of the field, and closest challenger Deerfield 55-36, that it knew midway through the second day it would claim the state title. It looks as though it may happen again on the final weekend of May. The Trevians said goodbye to their best player, Robert Stineman, but welcome back every other player, including Jared Hiltzik, who was runner-up to his teammate at singles, but enters the season as the favorite to win it all. Stevenson, Oak Park-River Forest, Deerfield and Highland Park lost key figures from their starting lineups. So did Hinsdale Central with the departed Rafe Mosetick, but freshman phenom Matt Joyce will make an already deep Red Devils club stronger. The team many are wary of is Glenbrook South. The Titans add another USTA star (Konrad Zieba) to the lineup to give them a power-packed 1-2 punch at singles with Sam Hoogland, which will allow longtime head coach Larry Faulkner to pencil in Michael Sellito and Michael Levin as his No. 1 doubles team. Edwardsville might be the best from southern Illinois, while Kelly Willard's Redbirds from Metamora, and Morton will make a big splash from central Illinois later in the season.
Benet/Downers Grove South Invite, April 7: Barrington jumps into the fire to compete against some of the hottest clubs around, including New Trier, Hinsdale Central and Deerfield in this annual eight-team tourney. The singles field will undoubtedly be the one to watch with Hiltzik leading a superb group which includes Sammy Bloom and Matt Joyce (Hinsdale Central), Jason Brown and Toby Ma from Deerfield and senior Gordan Zhang of Naperville North.
Knights-Huskie Invite, April 14: The MSL trio of Barrington, Hersey and Prospect get their first look at perennial state powers Highland Park and Oak Park-River Forest, as well as one of the favorites in the North Suburban Conference in Warren. The Blue Devils, always one of the classiest programs around, lost their top two doubles teams, but return two-time state singles qualifier Kristyan Trukov. Oak Park, third in the state last spring, must replace four-time state qualifier Jake Wilson, but has the marvelous trio of returning state qualifiers Jeremy Dixon, Luke Trinka and Tim McAdam.
Deerfield Quad, April 14: Defending MSL champion Fremd gets to see where it stands after three head-to-head matches with Stevenson, Lake Forest and the host Warriors. Gone are the state doubles champs Ross Putterman and David Packowitz of Stevenson, but the Patriots have a wonderful singles player in junior Jeremy Bush, who won six at the state tourney last season, and a new teammate joining him in freshman Colin Harvey. Bush will take aim at Brown and Ma, as well as the Scouts' pair of Peter Tarwid and Cameron Bagheri.
Pitchford '32', April 27-28: Buy your program, follow the big brackets on the wall, and get ready to watch some terrific tennis. This is the only place to be this weekend as this version of a "mini" state tournament is played at a half-dozen sites around Hersey. Last year New Trier let everyone know it was the team to beat with a dominating performance, highlighted by Robert Stineman's superb work over the two days, culminating in his singles title at No. 1 -- something he would duplicate four weeks later at the state tournament -- and helping the Trevians land atop the leader board in the team race. Coaches will tinker and tweak their lineups at the '32' with an eye on the future, especially at doubles where eventual champions are made from work in the tennis laboratory.
East Suburban Catholic Conference tournament, May 11 at Carmel: Benet's was knocked off the mantle as the top team in the ESCC last year when Marian Catholic, led by three-time singles champ Julian Childers, edged the Redhawks by one-half point to capture its first conference crown over a club which was in pursuit of its 19th in program history. Marian appears to be the team to beat this season as well as it returns its top two singles players. Childers, who was a 5-8 seed at the state tournament, went 6-2 there, losing in the consolation semifinals to Bloom of Hinsdale Central.
Mid-Suburban League tournament, May 10-12 at Barrington: There wasn't the usual dramatic finish between Barrington and Fremd, as the Vikings showed remarkable staying power on the second day of the MSL tournament, winning all three flights at singles, and a pair of titles at Nos. 2 and 3 doubles to outlast the Broncos by 10 points and give then, first-year head coach Matt Duncan the chance to lift the team trophy. The sensational singles pair of Matt Burkhardt (Fremd) and Izzi Balase (Schaumburg) have moved onto the collegiate scene, opening things up for others to step forward, and while the No. 1 doubles team from Barrington (Ben Nuckles-George Coll) has been broken up with Nuckles off to college, there's plenty of familiar names back to make this, potentially, the one to watch. Prospect's Carson Burke looks to take a big step forward after a solid rookie season, but all eyes will be on Vincent Lin (Schaumburg), a high-profile USTA ranked player, who is expected to be ready to make his MSL and prep debut this spring.