Gazette Girls Tennis Player of the Year: Ava Shea, Belchertown

Belchertown’s Ava Shea returns a shot against South Hadley’s Estella Estrada while competing in the No. 1 singles match during the Western Mass. Class B girls tennis semifinals earlier this season in Belchertown.

Belchertown’s Ava Shea returns a shot against South Hadley’s Estella Estrada while competing in the No. 1 singles match during the Western Mass. Class B girls tennis semifinals earlier this season in Belchertown. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Belchertown’s Ava Shea returns a shot against South Hadley’s Estella Estrada while competing in the No. 1 singles match during the Western Mass. Class B girls tennis semifinals earlier this season in Belchertown.

Belchertown’s Ava Shea returns a shot against South Hadley’s Estella Estrada while competing in the No. 1 singles match during the Western Mass. Class B girls tennis semifinals earlier this season in Belchertown. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Belchertown’s Ava Shea readies a shot against South Hadley’s Estella Estrada during their No. 1 singles match earlier this season at Mount Holyoke College.

Belchertown’s Ava Shea readies a shot against South Hadley’s Estella Estrada during their No. 1 singles match earlier this season at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-10-2024 4:20 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Heading into this spring, Belchertown girls tennis star Ava Shea needed 15 victories to reach the 50-win plateau for her career. The senior sat down before the season started and created a list of goals for herself, trying to figure out what she wanted to prioritize in what was to be her final season of high school tennis.

Atop that list? Getting halfway to the century mark in wins.

Eventually, Shea breezed through her competition – just as she did a year ago – and sat one away from 50. Coincidentally, the match to hit that goal came on her senior night, where the Orioles hosted Chicopee Comp toward the latter half of the regular season. Shea was dominant in a 6-0, 6-0 triumph and was greeted by family, friends and teammates following the match.

“I enjoyed getting my 50th career win,” Shea said. “That was one of those early-season goals I had. And I got it on my senior night, which was even better. That was one of the highlights of my season for sure, and I’m very proud of that.”

Shea posted an individual record of 21-3, and was the catalyst in helping Belchertown reach the MIAA Division 3 state quarterfinals – the deepest run in program postseason history. The Orioles ultimately fell 3-2 in a close battle with No. 1 Wilmington, almost cracking the Final Four.

Because of her stellar record, which included an undefeated mark against Hampshire County opponents, Shea earned herself the Daily Hampshire Gazette Girls Tennis Player of the Year award for the second straight year.

“I honestly didn’t expect to win this again,” Shea said. “It’s definitely such an honor to win this because I’ve worked so hard to get to this point. I couldn’t do this without my team, so I give credit to them because they’re the biggest support system. Tennis season is my favorite time of year. I come to practice or matches and everyone is so positive, and playing tennis is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s nice to share these moments together with my team.”

Winning on senior night to hit an important milestone certainly stood out as one of Shea’s favorite moments this year, but making it to the Elite Eight in the state tournament and making team history was more important to her.

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Having invested so much time into Belchertown tennis, holding the title as most successful team in Orioles program history – winning a Western Mass. Class B title included – hasn’t yet set in even several weeks removed from the season.

“I was very happy for not just me, but my whole team for advancing as fas as we did in states,” Shea said. “We’ve never really gone that far as a program, so I’m happy to see all the hard work we put in pay off.”

Shea was already a force as a junior with virtually no holes in her game. Yet she followed up her 16 wins in 2023 with 21 in 2024.

There wasn’t much of a difference between the Ava Shea of last year and the Ava Shea of this year, according to her. But the more she played and experience she gained is what helped her. She became more surgical with her spots, painting forehand and backhand winners down the line after making her opponents chase down shots left, right, short and long.

She learned that speed doesn’t always kill. So Shea slowed down her mind and her racket, and instead out-smarted whoever was on the other side of the net.

“I’m not a really hard hitter; I don’t like to hit the ball super hard 24/7,” Shea said. “I definitely got more and more strategic than last year. You don’t always have to hit the ball super hard. I tried to switch up my game to hit more slices and tricky shots that made the opponent have to run all over the court. It made me more confident as to where to place the ball and how to strategize.”

“This year and last year were pretty similar,” Shea continued, “but honestly I think I excelled more in my personal game. Obviously you get better as you get older and the years go on, but I definitely figured out what works best for me – how to handle stress better.”

While there are numerous aspects of Shea’s game that led her to winning another award, her leadership skills deserved just as much praise. Starting out as a reserved youngster during her first two years with Belchertown, Shea eventually grew into one of the most vocal players on the team.

Whether it was encouraging her teammates between points or games during matches, keeping everyone together with positive talk or helping anybody who asked improve on certain parts of their game during practice, Shea did it all.

“There’s a lot about Belchertown tennis that has made me the player and person I am,” Shea said.

Next year, Shea will continue her academic and athletic careers at Division 3 Springfield College – staying put in western Mass.

Belchertown head coach Alanna Grady works as a professor at Springfield teaching numerous writing courses. Sure enough, Shea is scheduled to take a writing class in the fall, so maybe the two won’t be separated for long.

Shea has learned so much from Grady over the years, and perhaps she isn’t quite done learning from her yet.

“Maybe I’ll get her as a professor, I have no idea,” Shea said with a laugh. “I’ll definitely still be seeing her around. I’m not leaving her. As a coach, she is literally the best. She’s taught me so much, and it’s improved my game. I know I’ll have a great coach [at Springfield College], but Alanna has really set the standards for me and my game.”