More St. Francis athletes coming up aces
Tom Castronovo entered St. Francis' Spyglass Athletic Center and looked around. Something was amiss.
Banners acknowledging state achievements earned by nearly every other Spartans sport from baseball to girls volleyball listed some level of success. Heck, a complete rundown of the girls volleyball program's various team and individual accomplishments could merit an additional wing to the building.
The banner noting girls tennis had nothing. This would not do.
"We told the girls, it's not going to be blank anymore," said Castronovo, who until taking over St. Francis' boys last spring had no prior coaching experience despite being a longtime United States Tennis Association member.
Still, even the new coach expected only moderate success this season. But on Saturday at the Class 1A Joliet Catholic sectional, moved indoors to Challenge Fitness in Lockport to avoid the rain, Castronovo's banner-filling prophecy proved accurate.
The Spartans defeated defending sectional champion and host Joliet Catholic, last season's Class 1A runner-up to Benet, to win the school's first girls tennis sectional in history while advancing the most players it ever had to the state finals -- singles players Gina Vale and Jane Price and the medalist doubles team of Alyssa Gulli and Marnie Kopec. (Marnie's grandmother, Peg, helped decorate those girls volleyball banners.)
"It's my first year coaching, so that's a big deal for me," Castronovo said.
He's not alone.
"This year we put it on the board, so it'll be remembered a long time," said Gulli, a team captain along with fellow senior Elizabeth "Bitsy" Los.
Returning a sole state qualifier in No. 1 singles player Vale, who in 2016 reached the second round in her half of the 1A championship bracket; and drawing Price, a transfer from South Elgin cleared by the Illinois High School Association to play at St. Francis, in the preseason Castronovo told a reporter he'd be "very pleased" if the Spartans earned a winning record.
They came out of sectionals 17-7, unbeaten against Class 1A foes and beating Class 2A programs Elgin, Lincoln-Way Central, Mother McAuley, Palatine, Providence, Waubonsie Valley and Willowbrook, he said. Price, 18-9 overall, went 10-0 against 1A foes.
St. Francis twice beat Fenwick, which won the Class 1A Timothy Christian sectional, though Timothy's Abygale Ahn and Cassandra Lee enter Thursday's state competition as the top-seeded doubles team.
"These girls were thrilled because I don't think the expectations were there," said Castronovo, whose day job is financial adviser or, he said, "what used to be called a stock broker."
A Benet graduate, he used Redwings coach Michael Hand's program as a template for improvements at St. Francis. With an all-new staff including Mark Sawko, Matt Gorski and Maria Gulli, Alyssa's mother and a former St. Francis tennis player herself, Castronovo sought to provide an "A-plus experience."
"I feel like we were really supported this year, and we did a lot more drills that really prepared us for matches and games that last year we didn't really get to do," said Alyssa Gulli, 19-8 on the season with Kopec.
Though Kopec and Price are sophomores and Castronovo's niece, Vale, is a junior -- and rated 49th in Illinois' Class of 2019 by Tennis Recruiting Network -- 11 of the team's 16 players are seniors. They get along.
"In the past I think people hadn't really bonded as well, and I when you bond well as a team member in singles I think you pick each other up," Gulli said.
That seems the direction the program is headed.
"This season's been really good," Gulli said. "Based on everything, like friends and coaches, it's definitely been the best year yet."
Movin' on up
A few folks with DuPage County ties are making their way up the collegiate coaching ranks.
Kristen Corning has been named softball coach at Waubonsee Community College. Class of 2002 at Addison Trail, then Kristen Brestan, she was a two-time Blazers most valuable player who once struck out 37 batters in a 17-inning game. As a Waubonsee assistant last year she helped the Chiefs to a 37-20 record and their first Region IV championship.
Kirk Lamitie will be the first women's lacrosse coach in Lewis University history. After serving as girls coach at both Naperville North and York he took the Illinois Institute of Technology from zilch to a 15-2 record and a share of the 2017 Midwest Women's Lacrosse Conference regular-season title.
It's been a while now, but Alex Hurlburt joined Loyola University's powerful men's volleyball program as a volunteer assistant coach. The former Glenbard East star was an assistant coach on Glenbard West's 2017 boys state championship team. He led his Hitmen Volleyball Club to a fifth-place finish in the 18 Open Division of the 2017 Boys Junior National Championships.
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