2023 Gazette Girls Tennis Player of the Year: Ava Shea, Belchertown

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer

Published: 07-19-2023 1:48 PM

Belchertown junior Ava Shea came into this tennis season with clear goals and a laser focus.

Athletically, Shea was already a formidable opponent, with a serve that makes her opponents quake in their sneakers and the experience of playing No. 2 singles as a freshman and No. 1 singles as a sophomore over her past two years with the Orioles.

But this year, Shea added another weapon to her already formidable toolkit — a better understanding of the strategic and mental parts of the game.

“I can definitely see an improvement in a lot of different aspects of my game,” Shea said. “Personally, I think I have better court awareness. I was able to imagine a point, you know what I mean? Imagine what I could do with this ball and it definitely worked in my favor. I wouldn’t just hit like flat balls, I would mix it up into a bunch of slices and stuff.”

Imagining how a match will go is one thing. Being able to execute the vision in your head is an entirely different matter, and it’s a rare athlete that is able to pull it off. Shea is one of them, and her dominance at No. 1 singles for Belchertown earned her the Daily Hampshire Gazette Girls Tennis Player of the Year.

She led the team with a 16-2 record, earning impressive wins against tough foes like Amherst’s Sofia DaSilva-Askew and Pope Francis’ Katelyn Horky; her only two losses of the season came in a three-set nailbiter in the Western Mass. Class B final to friend Norah Dumala of Minnechaug, and then again when the team fell in the second round of the MIAA Division 3 state tournament.

Her talent is certainly visible whenever she steps on the court. Her coach Alanna Grady points to her enthusiasm as one of her biggest strengths, along with her level-headedness during difficult moments.

“She’ll be in close matches and she’ll come to me at the fence in moments when other players might be kind of nervous or freaking out a little bit, and Ava will just say, ‘this is fun,’” Grady said. “And I’m glad she sees it that way because that’s how tennis is supposed to be. And she’s got the absolute right mindset for that. ... (I say) ‘Ava, when you’re having fun, I’m not worried about you.’”

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Shea started playing tennis because of her grandfather, who signed her up for lessons at the Ludlow Tennis Club when she was six years old (without any input from her). He’s an assistant coach for both the girls and boys teams at Belchertown, helping out and giving pointers when needed. Shea doesn’t get a lot of time to play against her grandfather, but she said he’s the better player of the two – for now.

“He’s actually pretty good at it, still,” she said with a laugh. “I have not gotten the chance to beat him. He always hits the trickiest shots ever. I can never get to them.”

While a win against her grandfather still eludes her, Shea got used to winning this year. But the most exciting match of her season wasn’t one that she won, but one of her few losses — a regular season showdown between Minnechaug’s Dumala, her friend and rival.

“I knew she was going to be amazing. So I just wanted to go out there… just very low key and just play,” Shea said. “The first set was a little brutal.... I did my best, and then the second set came through and I started warming up to her and what she was doing. When I won that second set, I was like ‘whoa, this is just crazy.’”

Shea won the second set against Dumala, and at the time she was just the second opponent to take a set from her all season — not a match, just a set. They went to a third-set tiebreaker that Dumala won, but Shea wasn’t disappointed in her defeat.

“I’m just very glad that I had the opportunity to play somebody that good,” Shea said. “I definitely played better, too.”

That love of playing tight, competitive tennis is something that Shea embodies. Belchertown made it back to the Class B final this season after falling in the semis to Northampton last year. Ultimately, the Orioles fell in a 3-2 loss to Ludlow, but the close matches against their friends — many Belchertown and Ludlow tennis players compete together during the offseason — made it a memorable experience for Shea.

“I just loved being in the Western Mass. finals. It was so close, we wanted it so bad. And it was against Ludlow, I call (them) our twin, it’s like the same team, we each have a solid starting lineup,” Shea said. “It was just that close. That’s how a final should be. And I really enjoyed playing my friend… it’s just always a very upbeat and positive energy when we play Ludlow because they’re all our friends.”

Shea’s still working hard in the offseason to prepare for next year, coaching a little and continuing to hone her skills. Maybe next year she’ll finally be able to take down her grandfather, but for now she’s hoping to finish her high school career with a stellar senior season.

FIRST TEAM ALL-STARS

Kelsey Brainard, junior, Holyoke

Amber Drummond, junior, Belchertown

Ava Shea, junior, Belchertown

Elisa Shinn, sixth grade, PVCICS

Sofia DaSilva-Askew, freshman, Amherst

Sydney Scanlon, senior, Frontier

Daria Warren, senior, Northampton

SECOND TEAM ALL-STARS

Annalisa Agliati, senior, Northampton

Emalee Chaisson, junior, Belchertown

Mia Corish, sophomore, Belchertown

Rachel Gao, senior, PVCICS

Christina Heiney, seventh grade, PVCICS

Esther Ngure, senior, South Hadley

Brenna Phillips, junior, Holyoke

Maddie Powers, senior, Frontier

Rylee Suchinecz, senior, South Hadley

Ursula Von Goler, junior, Northampton

Nina Zorzi, junior, PVCICS

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