State College’s Nick Vanden laughs about his temper tantrums now.
In the past, the Little Lions junior threw his racket, hit tennis balls into the net and screamed, letting his frustration get the best of him after he lost to lower-ranked opponents or even to teammates like Matt Wherley, Fernando del Castillo and Owen Lloyd. Vanden said he’s matured on the court going into this season.
The defending District 6 Class 3A singles champion now understands the value of staying calm — he can think clearly and improve during the match to come away with a win.
“I’ve really slowed down,” Vanden said. “I’ve really kind of, I wouldn’t say master, but I really improved my mental ability to work out points, deal with loss.”
Vanden leads an experienced group into this season. The Little Lions return six starters — including top players in Vanden, Wherley, del Castillo and Lloyd — from a team that went 16-2 and captured the Mid Penn championship in 2016. Wherley won the District 6 singles title in 2015 and won the district doubles championship with Lloyd last year. Though the Little Lions enjoyed individual and team success a year ago, their season ended in disappointment as they lost to Hollidaysburg in the District 6 Class 3A team championship match.
With plenty of talent and experience returning, State College has its sights set on reclaiming the district title in 2017.
“They weren’t happy at the end of the year last year, and rightly so,” said State College coach Jane Borden, whose team opened the season with a win over Palmyra on Tuesday.
Borden said Vanden, Wherley, del Castillo and Lloyd will be State College’s singles players this season. The Little Lions’ top four returning players train together at Penn State’s Indoor Tennis Center and play together year round.
“We’ve been playing together forever so we all know what to expect from each other,” Wherley said. “But that means that we all know if I just do this one little thing more, maybe I can beat the next guy up.”
Wherley is chasing Vanden for a chance to win another district singles championship. After winning the title two years ago, Wherley was on a choir trip in Canada during the singles championships last year.
The senior said Vanden has won most of their matchups at practices so far. Wherley finds himself a few feet behind the baseline handling Vanden’s well-placed shots, allowing his teammate to control the court.
Endurance and speed have always been Wherley’s strengths, and though he doesn’t hit the ball as well as Vanden, he knows he can get to every ball.
Vanden has often watched from the other side of the net as Wherley used his quickness to extend points.
“He never gives up so even if you think you’re going to hit a winner, he’ll get to it instantly,” Vanden said.
Still, Vanden is State College’s top singles player going into the year.
Borden said the junior is more composed and poised. And he’s shown improvement in his approach, thinking about setting up points rather than just striking the ball. Lately, teammates like del Castillo, another player who relies on speed and endurance, know to expect a “barrage of very good shots.”
“Over the last couple months, he’s improved his consistency at a stratospheric level,” del Castillo said. “He’s playing so much better than he has in the past because he’s making so many more balls.”
During the season, the team’s top four players will all hit on one court. They’ll work to make each other better while knowing they could face each other in the district singles championship match — when Wherley won his title, he beat teammate Dan Shull.
As Wherley and Vanden work toward trying to win the singles title again, the Little Lions will be focused on finishing stronger to capture the team championship.
“District 6 tennis is very good. It’s tough, it’s so competitive, but we don’t see it,” Borden said. “We play Mid Penn all year, so you really have to change gears at the end of the year and get with the program quickly because if you don’t, before you know it, it’s over.”
State College boys’ tennis
Head coach: Jane Borden
Assistant coaches: Jackie Gibbins, Jan Bortner
Last year: 16-2; Mid Penn champions
Key losses: Matt Bristol, Jay Deng
Returning letterwinners: Matt Wherley, Nick Vanden, Owen Lloyd, Fernando del Castillo, Aleef Mannan, Terrence Li, Garrett Schoonmaker, Sankar Ramesh
Key newcomers: Ronit Patel