The Darien boys tennis team is coming off one of its best seasons in well over a decade.
The Blue Wave was 15-5 last year, reached the FCIAC semifinals, and came within two points of winning their first state championship since 2007, eventually settling for runner-up honors. When the returning Darien players hit the court for the 2019 preseason, they hadn’t missed a beat.
“They’ve got a great spirit and they really believe they’ve got a shot to do something special this year,” head coach Hugh Underhill said. “We’re carrying a lot of momentum from last year, certainly with abilities but even more so with passion and experience. The momentum of wanting to win and fight for your brothers is palatable.”
The biggest challenge facing the Blue Wave is filling the big shoes left by Bobby Neuner, a four-year starter at No. 1 singles. A two-year captain, Neuner graduated last spring and is now playing for the highly-regarded tennis program at Washington & Lee.
Neuner was a state finalist in singles three times, winning the title as a sophomore, and finishing runner-up as a freshman and senior. In last year’s championship, he lost a tough match with No. 1 seed Andrew Forchetti from Notre Dame-West Haven, 6-4, 7-5.
Neuner and Neil Gandhi, also a captain last season, were the only graduates from last year’s squad, leaving Darien with the vast majority of its roster intact.
“We had a great year last year, so we’re trying to have another building year,” Underhill said. “Unfortunately, we lost Bobby Neuner; he played No. 1 for Darien for four years, and he’s missed both on and off the court. He was such a wonderful kid. But one of our strengths is that we have two great captains: John Lochtefeld and Tyler Cramer and they’ve been great as leaders.”
Both Lochtefeld and Cramer are three-year varsity players and strong leaders who could fit into several spots in the lineup. Cramer teamed with Chris Calderwood, now a sophomore, at No. 2 doubles last season.
“John’s a senior and he’s been on the team for the past three years,” Underhill said. “He played football and he’s a strong player. And it’s also Tyler’s third year on the team. So they’re good veteran players to have.”
The singles lineup will see some movement with Nuener gone, but three of the four players have returned, giving Darien experience there.
That group features junior Nick Derby, who played at No. 2 last year and could move up to the No. 1 slot this spring.
“Nick’s a junior now and we’re expecting a lot from him again this year,” Underhill said. “He played two singles right behind Bobby and he was very solid. This is also his third year on the team.”
The Wave also returns sophomore Ethan Zhang, who played at No. 3, and junior Ian Wise, who played No. 4.
Senior Michael Kerr, who played as a freshman, is back with the team and Underhill said he could play “high up on the singles ladder,” and the Wave also added sophomore Ryan Thomas, who the coach said is very capable of playing singles this season.
Sorting everything out will likely come down to the outcome of Darien’s team playoffs during the preseason.
“We’ve got some tough players and those will be some tough decisions,” Underhill said. “We’ve got a big playoff picture coming here.”
Much like singles, the Wave also has five of its six doubles player back on the court.
Junior Romano DeCaprio returns after playing No. 1 with Gandhi last season. That duo reached the quarterfinals in the Class L tournament.
“Romano will be playing — he really improved over the summer and we’re looking for big things out of him,” Underhill said.
Cramer and Calderwood played at No. 2 last year, with senior Sergei Doroshin and sophomore Alexander de Castro, who teamed at No. 3, also returning.
Derek Chiapetta returns as a junior and could figure in the mix.
“Derek played a lot over the summer and he’s been hitting the ball great,” Underhill said. “He’s one of the horses. He could be in there everywhere.”
The final picture could also feature Robert Gasserud, another senior with varsity experience.
New to the team this season are junior Andrew Schimmeck, along with a pair of promising freshmen: Anders Hansen and Andrew Kelly.
“We’re still molding and putting together the teams,” Underhill said. “Especially with so much talent, we’re not quite sure where to put everybody.”
The talent is certainly in place and with the success of last year, the Blue Wave remains hungry.
“You’ve got a good legacy here,” Underhill said. “Just within the town for all sports, there’s a legacy to be very competitive. These kids start playing tennis at a young age and they’ve gotten to love the game. And I think they realize this is one of the few places you can compete in tennis as a team.”
“We’ve got some returning players and some good young players and we’re very solid — maybe more solid than in other years. Top to bottom, we’re looking very strong.” — Darien head coach Hugh Underhill