Monday, September 12, 2022 | 11:52
First-year Highland women’s tennis coach Vaughn Hunkele knew exactly what he was getting into when he took the job in August.
The 2016 Highland graduate knew he would have to start building a foundation, teaching tennis and victory would come later.
After the first weeks of the season, Hunkele’s plan to build a winner is on track.
“I knew we had a lot of inexperienced players on the team,” said Hunkele, who played tennis at Pitt-Greensburg. “There were a lot of freshmen and a lot of freshmen as well. We’re not a Fox Chapel or Shady Side Academy, so I knew there were a lot of inexperienced players.
“I knew there were girls out there who were passionate about playing a new sport. These girls were eager to try something new. My ultimate goal is to make us a competitor.
Hunkele brings his coaching experience to Highlands (0-2, 0-1). Along with being an assistant coach last season for the Highland men’s tennis team, Hunkele has also been the tennis pro at Pittsburgh Field Club for the past three years.
Hunkele’s experience as a tennis professional has helped him identify his players’ strengths while working on their weaknesses.
“I would say half the team is made up of rookies, and the other half of the team is made up of seniors and juniors,” Hunkele said. “And with these girls, we discovered that they had certain talents and characteristics that carried over to tennis.”
With his top three singles players, Hunkele stressed the need for consistency.
“Obviously when we play against more experienced teams that hit with power and more spin, they try to get the ball where it came from,” Hunkele said. “To combat this, I teach them to give themselves a larger target to aim for on the pitch. As a result, you’ll have fewer balls out of play. You’re trying to level the playing field.”
Senior captain Ava Nitowski leads the Golden Rams in singles No. 1. Nitowski’s strengths right now are her serves and volleys. But the adjustment between playing singles No. 2 last season and facing the opposing team’s best player can be a bumpy ride to begin with.
“She adapts to playing against girls who hit harder and have better spin,” Hunkele said. “She is very coachable, though. We try to get her to the net to have short exchanges with her opponent.
At No. 2 in singles is junior Gabbi Balog. Hunkele likes Balog’s athleticism and said it has kept her in games. Balog is one of the players mentioned by Hunkele for the most overall improvement since taking over as coach.
At No. 3 is senior captain Rachael Babinsack. Hunkele said Babinsack’s greatest attribute was his heart. Babinsack won her match against non-sectional rival Valley.
“(Babinsack) is constantly looking for ways to win,” Hunkele said. “Rachel has been a great leader for our team.”
Doubles training and the many strategies that come with playing doubles are a whole different animal. Hunkele likes where his doubles pairs are at and is excited to see both pairs improving as the season progresses.
At No. 1 in doubles are juniors Nevaeh Calligan and Helena Vasey. Hunkele said Vasey had one of the best serves and backhands on the team.
“As for what they need to work on, one would have to master the different strategies in order to master the game plan for the games,” Hunkele said. “We’re still out of position sometimes, and we try to reduce that.”
Probably the biggest surprise so far this season is the No. 2 double. Junior Elizabeth Ransom and freshman Alexis Arms have made a quick connection on the court together.
“I would say those two have the best chemistry of all of our doubles teams,” Hunkele said. “Elizabeth complements her well because she has more experience. It’s a good dynamic that these two have.
“I was most impressed with those two with Gabbi in the way they played.”
Hunkele said Arms had a background in softball and quickly took to the sport.
“Alexis has a lot of potential, and I think in two years she will be our number one,” Hunkele said.
The Ransom/Arms duo also picked up their first victory against Valley.
Highlands will face rivals Knoch, North Catholic, Burrell, Hampton, Riverview and The Ellis School in Division 3-2A this season.
“We started the season with tough games against Knoch, North Catholic and Hampton,” Hunkele said. “The calendar is starting to improve a bit for us. Hopefully by the end of the season we will have more than a few wins under our belt.
William Whalen is a freelance writer.