L-L tennis tougher than ever - LancasterOnline: Sports

L-L tennis tougher than ever

Always strong, the league features powerful No. 1 players and plenty of depth.

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Posted: Sunday, April 29, 2012 12:19 am | Updated: 12:23 pm, Mon Jan 20, 2014.

Derek Hagino and Colin Muraika were locked in a ground-strokes war, back and forth, back and forth.

This was the Lancaster-Lebanon League boys' tennis team-championship match, Cedar Crest vs. Hempfield, Wednesday at Warwick.

Hagino of the Black Knights vs. Muraika of the Falcons was the No. 2 singles' match. All five matches - three singles and two doubles - go on at the same time in these things, and Hagino-Muraika was on a far court, in relation to the bleachers and small crowd of spectators.

With everything else going on, hardly anyone was paying close attention.

Hagino, who was the fifth-seeded player in the league Class AAA singles' tournament even though he's only No. 2 on his own team, kept wailing away, one blistering topspin forehand after another.

Muraika, seeded ninth AAA in the league, looking about 11 years old, kept returning those forehand tracers, putting them back in play over and over.

Back and forth, back and forth.

Tennis might be the best L-L sport.

You may have heard of Julia Casselbury, the Lancaster Country Day senior who's won the last three AA state girls' singles titles and a full ride to Boston College.

(Country Day isn't strictly an L-L member, but qualifies for the postseason via the L-L.)

On the boys' side, Hempfield, which came into Wednesday's match undefeated, is the defending league and District Three Class AAA champion.

It beat Manheim Township in a narrow 3-2 decision in last year's district team final. Township had won the regular-season section title. In AA, Lancaster Catholic finished second in team districts and Donegal third.

In the individual district Class AAA singles, Township's Jack Berry beat Weston Fortna of Crest in the final. Jody Sambrick of Lampeter-Strasburg finished third, after pushing Berry to three sets in the semifinal.

That's right. First, second and third to the L-L.

And with districts coming up this week, the league is believed to be better this year.

"It's been the best league in District Three the last two-three years," Cedar Crest coach Mike Rohrbach said Wednesday.

"It's got to be one of the best tennis leagues in the state, and it's been like this, but this year is the best it's been in a long time."

This year, evidently, the league's four district team qualifiers (Crest and Hempfield in AAA, Elco and Country Day in AA) and four automatic berths in the district singles' draw aren't enough.

"We should have more teams in districts, and we should definitely have more singles players," Hempfield coach Rob Bair said.

"There are only three at-large spots available. The seeding committee has a tough job."

This year's league individual tournament, which concludes Monday at Warwick, backs that up.

Conestoga Valley's Darren Mast is the league's top-ranked player.

Casselbury's brother Blaise, in Class AA, is dominant, having lost just one game en route to Monday's AA final against Country Day teammate Wes Davis.

Mast will play Fortna for the league's AAA title Monday.

No upset there, but Mast needed three sets to subdue Manheim Township's David Musser in the semis.

Hempfield's Andrew Clark survived a tight 6-4, 7-5 battle with Warwick's Tony Deimler to reach the semifinals. And Deimler barely got past Ryan Zinn, Cedar Crest's No. 3, in a second-set tiebreaker in the first round.

"Just a lot of very good players," Bair said. "Nothing's easy."

Back at Warwick Wednesday, Weston, Cedar Crest's No. 1, is playing a near-perfect, overpowering first set against Clark, Hempfield's ultra-consistent, three-year No. 1.

Cedar Crest's Zinn is winning the No. 3 singles match, and Hempfield's Ben Ward and Austin Kintner seems in control at No. 2 doubles.

At No. 1 doubles, Hempfield's Nate Martinez/Joe Kelly are locked in a wild, roller-coaster battle with Henry Overholt/Alex Koltun.

"This is what's gonna decide it," Bair whispers.

Bair has had a lot of good teams, but this one is special. Its togetherness was cemented a couple of weeks ago when Bair's father passed away.

Bair's parents were ardent fans of all Hempfield sports, but especially tennis.

"They were kind of mom-mom and pop-pop to everybody," Bair said.

When the team showed up at the memorial service in Black Knight garb, "It was just an amazing, touching moment for me," Bair said.

The day is getting long, at Warwick, and still Hagino and Muraika are going back and forth, back and forth.

Crest's Fortna and Zinn earn competitive but decisive, straight-set wins, as do the Hempfield doubles team of Ward and Kintner.

Most of the spectators, including players from both teams, gather around the No. 1 doubles on the near court. It's a colorful battle, with high fives and fist-pumps and combatants admonishing themselves after mistakes.

It seemed to be turning both ways several times, but Kelly, a senior, served out the final points of a 7-5, third-set tiebreaker. Hempfield, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6.

When it's over, Kelly celebrates with a cartwheel.

So Hagino-Muraika will really decide it. They had played twice previously, Hagino winning both, the first by 10-8 in the third set in a Hershey Racquet Club tournament.

Hagino's killer forehand seems like a decisive weapon, and he seems to be winning the majority of the points early, but barely wins the first set 6-7 (9-7).

As the shadows lengthen and the other matches end, Muraika keeps plugging away, long rally after long rally.

He seems freakishly calm. He's been reading "The Inner Game of Tennis."

"It's about letting go of that part of you that's critical," he says afterward. "There are no good shots or bad shots. Just shots. It has really calmed my mind."

A good 15 minutes after all the other matches are over, with the team score 2-2, Muraika grinds out a 7-4 tiebreaker to force a third set.

These are a pair of remarkably poised freshman, but Muraika's calm seems almost freakish.

Hagino's game requires more energy, and it's starting to show. The forehands are starting to bury in the net. The third set is a relative anticlimax.

It's Muraika, and Cedar Crest, 6-7 (9-7), 7-6 (7-4), 6-2.

The stoic one manages a fist pump, before being mobbed by teammates.

Two days later, McCaskey's Dalton Lynch would bounce Muraika from the singles draw in the first round.

It's a tough, tough league.

Contact Sunday News Assistant Sports Editor Mike Gross at mgross@lnpnews.com.

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