Consistency, Dedication Push Ursuline Boys Tennis to New Heights

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A couple of Ursuline High School senior tennis players were playing a match Tuesday at the Volney Rogers  courts at Mill Creek Park. Their seasons were over, but they were there to show support for their teammates who are heading to Friday’s Division II district tournament.

In what is sometimes characterized as an individualistic sport, team unity prevails with the nine seniors on Ursuline’s tennis team, who have not lost a regular-season match in four years. These seniors accounted for the majority of the 14 on the team’s roster.

Irish head boys and girls coach Kent Blacksher, who is in his fifth year, quickly deflects any credit. A mindset of passion and learning prevails when his team plays.

Finding opponents’ weaknesses, exploiting them and executing on the court complements the athleticism of the players.

“If you don’t have the right mindset in this sport, then success is hard to come by,” he says. “We’re fortunate that we have guys that have cultivated success.”

Freshman Christopher Simon in singles, along with the doubles teams of seniors Gavin Blacksher and Josh Khavari; and sophomore Dylan Khavari and junior Glenn Christopher have all advanced to the Division II district tournament Friday in Akron, a step before heading to the state tournament.

The last time Ursuline sent a player to state was in 2019, but it’s not because the Irish didn’t have a player talented enough to make it. The pandemic extinguished the 2020 season.

The Ursuline High School boys tennis players advanced to Friday’s Division II district tournament in Akron are seniors Josh Khavari and Gavin Blacksher, freshman Christopher Simon, junior Glenn Christopher and sophomore Dylan Khavari.

The 2019 campaign was one to behold for the Irish as two of its doubles teams advanced to the final eight in Division II, while current Youngstown State University student Greg Morgione was the state runner-up that season. A day after the state meet near Cincinnati, the Irish finished runner-up in a team tournament in Columbus.

In 2020, this Irish team was poised to have arguably the best singles players in Morgione and possibly a doubles team vying for state championship – what likely would have been a banner year for Ursuline boys tennis.

“He took it like a champ, but he had to be really hurting, just to be so close and have it taken away,” says Ursuline assistant coach Rick Gaydos of Morgione. “We had a darn good shot to get back to the final four [in the state] last season. So yeah, I’m not going to lie. That hurt.”

Kent Blacksher and Gaydos have a knack of working together to cultivate success within the program. Ursuline High School athletic director John DeSantis says Blacksher is great at managing personalities – giving tough love when it’s needed and lightening the mood midway through a match. Gaydos is about the analytics, studying and gathering scores from around northeastern Ohio and finding weaknesses in the opposition’s game.

“I think it starts with the leadership,” he says.

There’s a time commitment for these efforts. Blacksher came to Tuesday’s practice right after a work-related virtual conference call. 

“It’s really pennies on the dollar for the kind of time that they’re putting in,” DeSantis says. “These guys are making less than a dollar an hour if you really did the math. That’s attributed to the kind of character that we have coaching in our athletic department. They’re not being compensated nearly enough for the kind of time and effort, but I think that’s one of the beauties of high school sports. 

Ursuline head boys tennis coach Kent Blacksher, left, and assistant coach Rick Gaydos, right, have led this successful team the last couple of seasons.

“You’re truly doing it because you love the sport and you love being around the kids – not for the paycheck,” he continues.

Dylan Khavari says he gets his money’s worth as Blacksher encourages him and this Ursuline team to strive for greatness. 

“I haven’t had a coach that has ever been this inspiring for me,” Khavari says.

Blacksher admits there is not much of an offseason for this team as they practice indoors when the weather is bad and use courts like Volney Rogers from the Mill Creek MetroParks in nicer months. 

Playing on indoor courts as well as obtaining team uniforms have a price tag. Parents and alumni provide a lot of financial support.

“It’s love of the game and having a really supportive ecosystem of great parents and caregivers,” Blacksher says.

Most Ursuline High School sporting events take place at Youngstown State University’s facilities, which are less than a mile away. These include soccer, football, softball and tennis. The Irish programs pay a fee to rent the facilities.

“I’ll say confidently our home tennis facility is as good or better than I would think just about any high school facility in the state of Ohio,” he says, referring to the YSU indoor tennis complex which opened in the spring of 2020. “Not just for matches, but for practice as well. It  allows us to maximize our preparation because we don’t have to worry about getting rained out or the early onset of the season when it might be 25 degrees and snowing.

“That’s a struggle based on our location as we do have to rent facilities, but the perk of that is their state-of-the-art facilities, whether it be soccer, tennis, football or softball. YSU has been a great partner with us and our kids.”

Blacksher’s son, Gavin, has played on Ursuline’s tennis team for the last four years. For anyone who has coached their own children, there’s a fine line between being a parent and mentor – something that’s never been much of an issue for these two.

“Not to say there are times out there where he’s looking at me like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Kent Blacksher says. “It’s been a challenge at times. But more so than anything, it’s been completely rewarding. I’m going to look back on his time here – and I think he will do the same – as something that we’ve shared together that’s been really, really special.”

This Ursuline boys tennis team has been a gold standard in this area the last couple of years with its successes – a mark Christopher and the rest of the returning players must uphold in the 2022 season.

“It’s going to be sad to see the seniors leave, but that’s how it is,” he says. “[We’ve] just got to  keep moving.”

Pictured: The Ursuline High School boys tennis team had nine seniors this season: Frankie DelColle, JJ Creighton, Brian White, Alex Ramirez, Chris Bass, Josh Khavari, Gavin Blacksher and Niko Hackett. Not pictured is Jacob Shogren.

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