D2 TENNIS: Valley View's Kotcho and Western Wayne's Vivona capture singles championships
May 13—WILKES-BARRE — Valley View's Luke Kotcho and Western Wayne freshman phenom Tristan Vivona weathered the challenge of their opponents and the heat of the summerlike afternoon to strike gold at the District 2 Tennis Singles Championships.
Both players had to go through defending champions on their way to victories in their respective tournaments Friday afternoon at Kirby Park.
Kotcho, the fourth-seeded player in Class 3A, defeated Wilkes-Barre Area's Michael Hamel in a grueling three-set final, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, to earn the title a year after playing as the No. 1 seed in the Class 2A tournament.
In the semifinals, Kotcho upset Abington Heights sophomore Praneel Mallaiah, the defending champion and No. 1 seed, 7-6 (2), 7-5.
"It is amazing to me because it is my senior year and I really had to show out," said Kotcho, who improved his singles record this season to 16-3. "Being the fourth seed, I felt like I brought the energy that I really needed to win this tournament."
In Class 2A, Vivona continued his undefeated season with a pair of straight-set victories.
The talented newcomer showed off his full arsenal of groundstrokes in a 6-0, 6-0 win over Scranton Prep's Akhilesh Velaga, the defending champion, in the final. He defeated Wyoming Seminary freshman Billy Hall, 6-1, 6-4, in the closest battle the state-ranked player received this season.
"This was the goal before the season started," Vivona said. "I am happy that I was able to accomplish that goal. There were some bumps in the road during this tournament, as I had a lingering back injury. I am glad that I was able to fight through that and overcome it."
The two champions advance to the PIAA Tournament that starts May 26 at the Hershey Raquet Club. Kotcho will play Dallastown's Hayden Koons, the runner-up from District 3, while Vivona will face the District 12 champion.
Each tournament brought together the top four-seeded players in their classifications.
All four semifinal matches were intense, and the talented athletes went at each other, fighting for every point. So much so that with temperatures in the 80s, the sweltering heat became a factor as players fought fatigue and exhaustion as well as their opponents.
Kotcho, who already had a physically exhausting match in the semifinal against Mallaiah, came out firing and was at the top of his game in the first set of his showdown against Hamel, who reached his third straight District 2 Class 3A final by defeating Abington Heights' Sam Christman, 6-3, 6-3.
The senior, whose only losses during the regular season came against Vivona, Mallaiah and Velaga, carried the momentum of his semifinal upset into a 2-1 lead. But Hamel fought back to draw even before Kotcho regained control with a series of sharp passing shots and a powerful serve to win 6-3. His winning shot came on an acrobatic backhand that lobbed just out of Hamel's reach.
In the second set, Hamel regained his composure, but began to cramp in his calf muscles late. Both players strung together long rallies, and Hamel built a 4-3 lead when his body started to fail him. He requested a medical stoppage and recovered enough to even the match with a 6-3 win.
But try as he might, Hamel had no more answers for Kotcho's strength or for his cramping struggles. Kotcho stayed on the offensive and kept moving Hamel around the court before attacking the openings for a 6-1 victory that secured the championship.
"It was tough, but I had to play him as if he wasn't injured," Kotcho said. "I hit high topspin balls, and that was the key."
Two courts down, Vivona played like a seasoned veteran who has competed in many high-level tournaments on the United States Tennis Association circuit, which earned him the No. 9 ranking and four stars in the state for his grade level by tennisrecruiting.net.
His crafty ball placement and solid serving game allowed him to withstand Velaga, who also put together several shots worthy of his championship-level status.
Eventually, Vivona came away with a 6-0, 6-0 win to improve to 17-0 on the season.
"Aki is a really good player, and he had a really long semifinal match," Vivona, 14, said. "He had to be a little tired himself. I was just really glad to share the court with him."
Kotcho and Mallaiah grabbed the attention of the crowd with their back-and-forth battle in the semifinals. Each time Kotcho surged in front, Mallaiah fought back like a defending champion.
In the second set, Kotcho built a 5-2 lead before Mallaiah tied things with three straight games.
Then, Kotcho went back to his first-set approach of attacking Mallaiah with velocity.
"That was my high topspin ball again that brought me the win," Kotcho said. "I brought it to him, and it was tough for him to hit them back. It was incredible for me to pull out that win."
Velaga also faced a daunting and exhausting match in his Class 2A semifinal. Riverside's Tony Ghigiarelli, the No. 3 seed, who does not play in the regular season because the school no longer sponsors boys tennis, went toe-to-toe with the defending champion. The balls were rocketing off each racquet, and the points were long.
The two players split the first two sets, with Velaga taking the first, 6-3, and Ghigiarelli rebounding in the second, 6-4.
In the third, a quick-wristed return of a serve by Velaga caught Ghigiarelli by surprise and whistled in for a winner. It also sparked Velaga's 6-3 win.
"It was a tough match," Velaga said. "We were exchanging breaks all the time. It was a battle of mental strength. We were both exhausted, but I was able to pull through. He gave a really good fight, and it could have gone either way, and I was able to get the win through my mental strength."
DISTRICT 2 CHAMPIONSHIPS
4-Luke Kotcho (VV) over 1-Praneel Mallaiah (AH), 7-6 (2), 7-5; 2-Michael Hamel (WBA) over 3-Sam Christman (AH), 6-3, 6-3.
4-Kotcho (VV) over 2-Hamel (WBA), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
1-Tristan Vivona (WW) over 4-Billy Hall (SEM), 6-1, 6-4; 2-Akhilesh Velaga (SP) over 3-Tony Ghigiarelli (RIV), 6-3, 4-6, 6-3.
1-Vivona (WW) over 2-Velaga (SP), 6-0, 6-0.
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