WMass Division 1 boys tennis: Northampton aces Amherst to reach championship match

  • Northampton No. 3 singles player Jake Duggan returns during the third set against Amherst Regional’s Austin Xiong, Thursday in the Western Massachusetts Division 1 boys tennis semifinals at Amherst Middle School. GAZETTE STAFF/KYLE GRABOWSKI

Friday, June 08, 2018

AMHERST — The fourth time’s the charm, apparently.

After losing to Amherst Regional thrice during the regular season, the Northampton boys tennis team reversed its fortunes Thursday in the Western Massachusetts Division 1 semifinals.

The third-seeded Blue Devils won 3-2 at Amherst Middle School to reach the sectional final for the first time in a decade.

“It was a moment of exultation for us,” Northampton coach Doug Winsor said. “Amherst has had our number for a while.”

The Blue Devils (15-5) face 20-time defending sectional champion Longmeadow (17-0) at 3:30 p.m. Monday at Forest Park in Springfield. It’s the first time the Division 1 final won’t feature Longmeadow vs. Minnechaug since 2010.

The match boiled down to the third set in third singles.

Northampton’s Jake Duggan lost the first set to Austin Xiong 7-6 then fell behind 3-0 in the second set.

“In some ways being down helped me loosen up,” Duggan said.

He won six of the final seven games to force a third set. Duggan served masterfully to take a 5-3 lead in the third set, then broke Xiong’s serve in the final game to win 6-3 and end both his match and Amherst vs. Northampton. Xiong fired wide left on the decisive point after Duggan returned his serve.

“I feel like I need to take like a 30-hour nap,” Duggan said.

He earned it. Both he and Xiong were drained in the third set, but Duggan stayed composed to finish the match.

“He’s had a couple matches like that this season,” Northampton coach Doug Winsor said. “He’s developed the stamina for that third set. He had a fair bit in the tank and I think that helped him.”

Duggan’s victory finished a roller-coaster ride for the Blue Devils on the upswing. Northampton started out high with a win at second doubles. Jack Denhart and Matt Skrzynski bested Andrew Ni and Sachin Khashu 6-2, 6-1. The match turned for the Blue Devils after one of the Hurricanes spiked his partner in the backside with a serve.

“We were playing a different doubles team, and there was a weaker opponent, so we just hit it to him a lot,” Denhart said. “We’ve been one of the only teams that has consistently won against Amherst, so it’s kind of nerve-wracking because we have to watch everyone else after.”

Stefan Johnson brought the Blue Devils to the brink with a 6-4, 6-3 win over James Serhant at No. 1 singles. The freshmen have grown up playing each other in club tennis.

“Usually my strategy backfires in the first couple games, usually he adjusts,” Johnson said. “I tried to come to net more and make him come to net, too, since we’re both baselines.”

At No. 1 doubles, the Hurricanes’ Nathan Ji and Ethan Yu survived a three-set battle against Chris Raphael-Reily and Galen Winsor to keep Amherst (14-3) alive. They won the first set 7-6 before falling 6-3 in Set 2.

“At the beginning of the first set we were up 3-0 real fast and felt comfortable and calm going into it, which is what we needed to catch up,” Ji said.

They won the third set 6-2 to pull Amherst within a point at 2-1.

Eli Ji carried the Hurricanes’ momentum at No. 2 singles. He won the first set 6-2 before Aidan O’Brien followed with a 6-2 win in the second set. Eli Ji closed the position out 6-4 to tie the match at 2.

“My endurance was a little better,” Eli Ji said. “He started getting a little less consistent.”

He wasn’t aware of the other scores and stayed focused on his own match.

“I was oblivious,” Eli Ji said.

Amherst senior Nathan Ji played his final game for the Hurricanes. They’ll bring back the rest of the team next season trying to better their results.

“We’re thrilled with our season,” Amherst coach Jeremy Wise said. “It’s hard to complain about.”

Northampton will take its shot at the Lancers. The Blue Devils lost both times against Longmeadow in the regular season.

“They’re the epitome of a great team. I’m proud to face off against them,” Duggan said. “I think we have a chance.”