Warren boys tennis hoping to climb more ‘rungs on the ladder’

It was a season for the ages, or all-time, or however you want to say it; 2012 was a season the Warren boys tennis program put it all together.

The Region 2 team champions at 16-0. Junior Shane Burns won the District 10 Class AA singles championship, and junior Matt Sandberg and senior Thomas Pellegrino won the District 10 doubles championship. Then, Warren won its first-ever District 10 team championship with a grueling 3-2 win over 11-time defending champion Fairview. The Dragons even won a PIAA playoff match.

Their ascent wasn’t something that surprised long-time head coach Jeff Bartsch, who helped make the program a varsity sport. And it isn’t like the program hasn’t had success. He’s 231-15 over 16 seasons as head coach – the Dragons didn’t lose for nine years, and there’s been numerous District 10 singles or doubles champions, including his son, Adam Bartsch, also a Warren County Sports Hall of Famer.

Bartsch said he could tell all the way back to when this group of seniors were freshmen.

“Every one of these boys was a champion at the Tri-County Tournament (in Sharon),” said Bartsch.

“It’s like rungs on a ladder,” he said. That’s how he looks at each and every season, each and every bit of success. When you reach a rung, you strive to reach the next one.

“In 2010, when these kids were freshmen, they went undefeated (in the regular season) and finished third in the district,” said Bartsch. “In 2011, they made the (team finals). And, in 2012, we win it.”

Now, there’s more work to do.

Bartsch said in the team “outlook,” published in the Spring Sports special edition inside today’s Times Observer, “we plan on defending our team title, our singles championship, and the doubles championship…

“Warren is in charge of our own destiny,” he said.

He wants that destiny to include even more rungs, more state wins, etc., etc.

“We’re not the underdog anymore,” said Bartsch. “Every year is different. Every scenario is different. Every year, your athletic make-up is different.

“The senior core of the group this year, Shane (Burns), Matt (Sandberg), Grayson (Foley), Nick (Tarpenning), Ylli (Bakalli), Liam (Boger) -these are just great guys. They are big, they are tall, they are talented athletes.”

Bartsch has gotten more used to the idea of sharing his tennis players – who are mostly just insane athletes – with other sports. This group isn’t purely dedicated to the sport of tennis.

“None of them take private lessons; that alone is amazing,” Bartsch said after last year’s D-10 team title win over Fairview. “Granted, you have some core athletes that are just outstanding athletes.”

But don’t think it doesn’t take much more than that to top the likes of Fairview.

“When you have smart kids, you can teach them and they don’t need to be told a thousand times,” said Bartsch.

And, with this group – and it’s a large group of 33 players, to be exact, they learn from osmosis.

“Older kids teach the younger kids,” said Bartsch.

“It may be information overload, but my players need to know more than their opponents do,” he said. “You look at your freshmen coming in and you study them. The most important thing is desire, and to be motivated, and have some (tennis) intelligence. We are asking these kids to make 10,000 decisions in an hour. I have a whole bunch of athletes that have become psychologists.”

You could see the desire on the face of Thomas Pellegrino last year after he and Sandberg won the District 10 Class AA doubles championship at the Pennbriar Club in Erie. The graduated senior was the emotional leader a season ago.

“He inflated everyone’s confidence and they fed off of him,” said Bartsch.

The confidence and emotion built as the season went on. Fairview elevated the emotion.

The first time the rivals met, Fairview won, 3-2, but was forced to forfeit after a player was ruled to have been ineligible to play in that match. The second time they played, Warren beat them on the court, and Pellegrino – at No. 2 singles -was a driving force. He defeated Fairview exchange student Andres Flores for the decision.

“It was like two different seasons before that match, and the minute that match happened, the rest of the season had a life of its own,” said Bartsch.

“It’s a different type of leadership that we have now,” he said. “In the post-season and D-10 playoffs, someone is going to have to step up, one of the seniors.”

Burns likes their chances.

“I definitely feel we can keep that chemistry because we have numerous new players with different assets who can fill in the gaps of the graduated players,” he said. “I felt like it was our ambition, dedication to the game, that helped us beat Fairview. Each guy on the team had a role and we each treat each other like family, which is why we were so successful. We encourage each other, tell each other what we need to do better, and practice together. Every player had that extra dedication and drive to hit beyond regular practice hours, which greatly improved their games.

“But, again, I feel like the main reason we were so successful was due to the unique chemistry of our team and how each person had their niche that they performed perfectly,” said Burns, who won the first D-10 singles title for Warren since his assistant coach, Jeff Nuhfer, won it back in 2006. “It is a different feeling (this year – being the hunted), but I want to treat it just like last year. I don’t want to get too presumptuous about anything in the near future, but I still want to keep that ambition of getting the titles again as if we haven’t won them yet.”

After a PIAA Class AA win over Winchester Thurston, Warren lost 5-0 to Wyomissing – the eventual state champ, and the Dragons saw a level of play they had not seen.

That’s the next rung on the ladder.

“You get to a new rung you’ve never been to before, then you look at that next rung and the next rung,” said Bartsch. “We want to look at the highest rungs.”