Weirton tennis is a city effort
The spring season proved that the road to the West Virginia state tennis tournament ran through Weirton.
There were 11 state qualifiers from the city, with four more coming from just north in New Manchester.
However, without the help of the Weirton Parks and Recreation Department, the goal of making it to Charleston would just be a pipe dream from the homefront.
“Without them,” said Weir High tennis coach Dave Thompson, “we’d be dead in the water.”
The department provides use of the Starvaggi courts, as well as Marland Heights Park, free of charge to the Red Riders and Madonna tennis teams.
“Without those courts, we can’t play,” Thompson said. “The kids would have nothing to look forward to.”
Most players on the Weir High tennis team do not participate in another school-sponsored sport.
“Some kids tried out that didn’t even own a tennis racket,” said Weir athletic director Mike DelRe.
Still, nearly 20 girls came out for the team in 2014.
“They just love him so much,” DelRe said, referring to Thompson. “He’s great with the kids.”
This year, Thompson’s leadership helped propel a pair of girls – Barbie Sulimanova and Claudia Diaz – to the state tournament. They were the first female state finalists in school history.
The girls are foreign exchange students from Slovakia and Spain, respectively.
“I heard rumors of how good they were,” Thompson said. “I was hopeful that they would do something. There were so many ups and downs all season because our region is so tough.”
Weir and Madonna compete against Oak Glen, Wheeling Central, Magnolia, St. Marys, Williamstown, Parkersburg Catholic, Ravenswood and Wahama.
Sulimanova defeated regional champions from Region I (North Central), Region III (Capital-area) and Region IV (Southern). In the state championship, she was defeated by Oak Glen sophomore Madison Juszczak, who beat Diaz in an earlier round.
“They were so thrilled to be part of the process,” DelRe said. “They are pure high school kids enjoying the journey. They don’t have that aura about them that most American kids carry with them. They’re wide-eyed kids just making the most of their young lives.”
One night in their Charleston hotel, DelRe observed Sulimanova talking on the phone with her mother, who still lives in Slovakia.
“It was an interesting sight to see,” he said. “They were talking in Slovakian, just jabbing away, talking about the excitement of playing in a championship.”
But that wouldn’t have been possible, even on the state’s grandest prep stage, without the help from back home.
“The city gives us access to the courts for practices and meets – for free,” DelRe said. “They’ve done it forever. We appreciate that the Parks and Rec people have done so much for us.”
Terry Weigel and Coty Shingle of the department played a bigger part this winter, with the help of Sulimanova, Diaz and their host Bill Galloway. They all collaborated to build a tennis backboard at Marland Heights in January to help themselves, and residents, practice even more.
“They’re such a joy to be around,” Thompson said. “They’re just great girls.”
Thompson has only been the tennis coach for three years, taking over for DelRe when he became athletic director. He knew next to nothing about the sport when he started.
That’s a similar story for Kelly Sinsigalli.
In her fourth year as Madonna’s tennis coach, Sinsigalli’s first introduction to the sport was in 2010.
She attended a Blue Dons match, just to support the team.
She left as the new head coach.
“Sue Wesie was the coach and at the time she was about to retire,” Sinsigalli said. “She had asked me if I wanted to take it over and here I am. I really enjoy it.”
Her original role was basically just the team’s official organizer.
“I was learning from the kids,” she said. “They taught me the rules and how to keep score. Then, eventually, I started playing myself.
“I’ve met some great people. Tennis players tend to be super nice.”
She plays in local leagues in Steubenville, Weirton and Wheeling.
“She’s gotten way better,” said Madonna senior Christina Conforti, a state-qualifier. “It was a little weird when she first started coaching. We all kind of played a part in showing her the ropes. Now, she’s really teaching us a lot of things.”
Madonna’s other state qualifiers were Matt Conforti, Cole Roberts, Ryan Watts, Thomas Gianni, Alan Alimario, Morgan Duerr, Elizabeth Conforti and Ali Welch.
Madison Hill, Hayley Spurlock and Addison Sayre also qualified for Oak Glen.
(Peaslee, a Youngstown native, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)