Monday, December 18, 2017
Sports

Tennis: Wharton now gets better competition

TAMPA — Wharton Nos. 2 and 3 singles players, Alek Crnogorac and Tommy Hwang, walked off the clay courts in less than 30 minutes at Hunter's Green Country Club on Tuesday. Each defeated his Strawberry Crest opponent 6-0, 6-0.

A few serve and volleys later, No. 1 Sam Chaffin joined Crnogorac and Hwang at Wharton's team table after dispatching his challenger 6-0, 6-1.

By the 45-minute mark of the head-to-head team matchup, Ernesto Gonzalez, Wharton's No. 4, was resting in a chair, eating a Chick-fil-A sandwich and swigging a Gatorade, the spoils of a 6-0, 6-1 triumph that gave the unbeaten Wildcats their 11th win of the season.

Victories have been easy to come by for the Wharton boys this season.

Competition has not.

Wharton has swept seven of its 11 opponents. And in those head-to-head team meetings, the Wildcats have dropped only four individual matches.

With district tournaments starting Monday, Wharton — aiming for its second straight district title — hopes an underwhelming regular-season schedule won't lead to a poor performance come playoff time.

"It can be tough (in the regular season) because you never know what kind of opponent you're going to get," said Chaffin, a senior. "You just have to stay focused."

Chaffin has firsthand experience of the increased competition level the district, region and state tournaments bring. Last year, he qualified as an individual for state after winning the No. 1 singles draw at districts. The heavy-hitting, hard-serving Florida Gulf Coast commit won one match at state to reach the semifinals but was defeated 6-2, 6-1 by the tournament's top seed.

"Guys that look dominant locally are getting beat at state and beat handily," Wharton second-year coach Scott Ware said. "It's a different level there."

Wharton has routinely proved to be one of the strongest teams in Tampa Bay, if not the entire state. From 2004-11, the Wildcats qualified for the state tournament eight years in a row.

Wharton won three straight state titles (2008-10) and has produced three individual champions (Michael Alford in 2009-10 and Benjamin Hwang in 2011).

After getting bounced in the second round of regions by Plant in 2012 and Wiregrass Ranch in 2013, the Wildcats seek a return to state.

"From the beginning, you know that you're expected to win here. You're expected to go to states," said Crnogorac, a senior. "Since the start of the season, that's all we've focused on."

Wharton's lineup has not changed much. Chaffin and Crnogorac have held the top two singles spots since their sophomore year. Junior Tommy Hwang, younger brother of Benjamin Hwang, returns for the second year at No. 3. The lone changes come from the last two singles spots, where junior Ernesto Gonzalez plays in the fourth position and younger brother Andres, a freshman, mans the fifth.

"The core of the team is the same," Crnogorac said. "(The Gonzalez brothers) stepped in and have kept things running. They took the challenge on and have performed very well. As long as we stay focused, I think we can make a run in the state tournament."

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