Providence High tennis players eye return to top

by C. Jemal Horton

The Providence boys tennis team’s starting lineup is (from left) Matt Coats, Nicholas Cottrill, Duy Huynh, John Kruszka, Chinmay Kulkarni and Michael McGowan. C. Jemal Horton/SCW photo

The Providence High School boys tennis team has a perfect 10-0 record this season, and, to be honest, the Panthers’ coach is a little surprised by that.

Not that Katy Judah Walters expected to be mediocre this season.

Since Walters took over the program for the 2006-07 academic year, the Panthers have won a state championship (in her inaugural season) and finished no worse than third in one of North Carolina’s best conferences, the Southwestern 4A, in each campaign. Plus, there was the fact that four of the team’s top six players from last season were returning in 2012.

Still, Walters couldn’t allow herself to imagine her team being unbeaten after 10 matches this year – not with perennial powers such as Charlotte Catholic, Myers Park, Watauga and new heavy hitter Hough on the schedule to that point. She didn’t envision her troops sitting at 6-0 in the Southwestern 4A and needing a single victory over rival Ardrey Kell to earn their first league title since that magical 2007 season.

But that’s exactly where the Panthers were heading to their Thursday, April 19, home match with fellow unbeaten Ardrey Kell (12-0, 6-0).

“No, I didn’t really expect this,” Walters said, laughing. “We lost my No. 1 and my No. 3 (player) last year – Will Goldberg and Scott Alan Cottrill – to graduation, so I wasn’t sure. We’re still young. We had some guys in new roles.

“But when we played Catholic – without their No. 1 guy (Kyle Johnson) – and then we played Watauga, you could see the talent and how (our players) came together. And they’ve just kept going. I think they’ve far exceeded my expectations.”

Powered by a deep and talented lineup, the Panthers have pummeled most of their opponents this year. They’ve allowed an opponent to win three games in a match on just two occasions: 6-3 victories over Watauga and Cornelius-based Hough. The Panthers limited Charlotte Catholic to winning just two games in their matchup this season, and their first five Southwestern 4A foes won a total of four games against them.

While the Providence players themselves also were a bit surprised that they boasted a flawless record entering the Ardrey Kell match, they absolutely anticipated being in the thick of the conference race in the season’s late stage.

“During tryouts, we kind of knew we had a good team because of the depth we had and the returning players,” said junior Nicholas Cottrill, the Panthers’ No. 3 player. “After we had some pretty big wins over Catholic and Hough and Watauga and Myers Park, it just showed that not only do we have depth, we’re a strong team and we’re a contender in this conference.

“We all put it in a lot of work this offseason, and we’ve all stayed focused. We have a lot of depth this year, which really helps us. We’re all playing at the top of our game right now, and we’re going to be tough to beat.”

The Providence lineup also includes John Kruszka, who moved up from the No. 2 slot to No. 1 this season. A relative newcomer, sophomore Michael McGowan, is this year’s No. 2; he was outside the starting lineup last year because he was recovering from a foot injury.

Cottrill, the younger brother of Scott Alan, has been steady in the third spot, while sophomore Matt Coats has been strong in his transition from No. 6 last year to No. 4 in 2012. Walters also lauded the play of junior No. 5 performer Duy Huynh, a junior, and Chinmay Kulkarni, a freshman who is holding down the No. 6 position.

“In terms of depth, we’re strong from 1 to 6, which helps because you win a lot of matches at 4, 5 and 6,” Walters said. “That’s so big.”

The coach said one of the strengths of her team has been the players’ ability to maintain level heads while embarking on their winning streak.

“They’re pretty low-key guys, and I love that,” Walters said. “Most of the time, they’re just happy if we’ve got great snacks before the match. Hopefully, if we come out on top against AK, they’ll be pretty excited going into the state tournament.”

The Providence players also want to experience the ecstasy of state-title success – but not just for themselves, which is why they’ve learned to strike a perfect balance between giddiness and seriousness.

“We’re laid back and fun-loving,” McGowan said. “Coach (Walters), no matter how big of knuckleheads we are, she’ll just love us anyway because we always keep her entertained. But we do stay serious on the court because we want to make her look good. That’s so important to all of us, so we stay focused.”

With the conference regular-season championship on the line Thursday, the Ardrey Kell match already was going to be tough for the Panthers. But it will be even tougher, as Coats, their No. 4 player, will miss the match because he’ll be in Chicago for a performance with the Providence band.

But that hasn’t altered the Panthers’ confidence one bit. The fact that they’re so close to returning the team to a championship-winning level, they said, is the ultimate motivation.

“It’s extremely important for us (to win the conference title),” Cottrill said. “We won states in ’07, and since those years we’ve always been in the top three contenders for the conference title but haven’t won it.

“I’d say it’s kind of like when you’re growing up, how you always want to beat your big brother in a sport, (and) that’s like AK and Myers Park for us. We’ve already beaten one of them (this year), so we’ve got one more to go. It’s kind of like a hurdle we have to get over, and it’s going to feel really good. We’re going to have to practice and stay focused as a team, and we can get the job done.”

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