He wasn't tested much early in the season, but when it counted most, Austen Delnicki delivered.
By capturing the PenSouth Conference 10 singles championship and earning runner-up honors in the Group 5A South Region, the Menchville sophomore became the Daily Press boys tennis Player of the Year.
Unlike most players, he occasionally will run around his forehand to hit his backhand, providing powerful line drives to run his foes ragged.
As an integral part of a Monarchs team that went unbeaten against Hampton Roads dual-match opposition for the second consecutive year, Delnicki breezed through almost every singles match in the regular season, except for a win against Heritage's Lorenzo Judkins. At the time, who would have known that contest — on line 2 — would pit a pair of conference champions?
"We had a close match, and that was my wake-up call," Delnicki said. "It was my first tough match in forever. It was stressful. I remember wanting to get off the court. The rest of the season went OK."
That's an understatement. Like they did in 2013, the Monarchs went through the dual season without a loss until they qualified for the state tournament. They beat their toughest PenSouth opponent, Great Bridge, in the regular season, the conference tournament final and a regional semifinal.
Amid all that, Delnicki and doubles partner Matt Strehle, who played No. 1 in the lineup, won the conference doubles tournament with relative ease and rolled past foes in the PenSouth singles tournament until they had no one left to face but each other. They never had opposed each other in a full practice match, as Coach Steve Sipe repeated last year by placing Strehle ahead of Delnicki in the lineup.
"The plan was to play Matt in the finals, which was expected, but kind of nerve-wracking to do," he said. "I think we both wanted to play each other in a formal match, obviously a crazy match. Definitely a hard one."
Delnicki won that good-natured, rain-delayed contest 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, then joined Strehle in the regional. Kempsville senior Mark Williams upended Strehle in the first round, but Delnicki then pounded Williams 6-1, 6-2 in the South's "757" semifinal to put himself in the four-player state singles tournament.
At that stage, Delnicki began to face opponents well beyond his level. His losses in team play, singles and doubles came to big-time players from Richmond — including state champion Shyam Venkat of Henrico — or Northern Virginia. All of those contests were in regional finals or state semis.
"I wanted to go to the regional final and go on to states," Delnicki said of beating Williams. "I took it as the final — it was important."
With two more years of high school left, "I want to be at that level now, but I realize it's not realistic. If I went hard for a full season and the offseason, I can at least compete with guys like that. ...
"I used to like soccer a lot, but what is playing soccer really doing for me?" the former junior-varsity midfielder said. "I think I'd like to play tennis in college. I think I'd excel more in tennis than in soccer."
SINGLES FIRST TEAM
Kurt Mittmann | Bruton | senior. The Bay Rivers District singles champion as a junior, he maintained that excellence as a 12th-grader. Arguably, he was the state's second-best Group 2A player. A 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 loss to eventual state champion Karl Katlaps of Maggie Walker in the Conference 33 final kept Mittmann from the 2A East Region draw.
Derrick Neilson | Jamestown | junior. He led the Eagles to another perfect Bay Rivers District regular season and took second place in the Conference 19 singles tournament, winning a third-set tiebreak in a semifinal.
Matthew Pittman | Bethel | sophomore. A memorable semifinal rally from a 5-2 second-set deficit to a 2-6, 7-5, 6-2 win against Western Branch's Patrick Drum boosted the highly consistent, lanky Pittman to second place in the Monitor-Merrimac Conference tournament, and he won a three-setter against First Colonial's Paul Ritter in a 6A South Region quarterfinal.
Will Prillaman | Hampton Roads Academy | eighth grade. The first-year Navigator — known for his sportsmasnhip and good variety of shots — stepped in and helped turn around a struggling program, advancing to the TCIS tournament semifinals in the No. 1 flight.
Matt Strehle | Menchville | junior. With a heavy topspin forehand, he went unbeaten in the regular season and was a singles runner-up for the second season — last year in the Peninsula District, this year in the PenSouth Conference. He also played No. 1 for a team that never lost to a Hampton Roads opponent.
DOUBLES FIRST TEAM
Derrick Neilson and Grayson DeBerry (freshman) | Jamestown. They captured the Conference 19 tournament crown with a three-set triumph vs. Powhatan and advanced to the 4A South regional, falling in a quarterfinal.
Austen Delnicki and Matt Strehle | Menchville. They won the PenSouth Conference tournament, avenging a defeat to Great Bridge, and reached the 5A South Region final and state semis.
Ethan Buck (senior) and Walter Buck (freshman) | York. The duo of brothers took second place in the Colonial Rivers Conference 25 tournament, then unforgettably won the 3A East Regional with a trio of three-set victories in one day. They then lost a state semi.