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Boys tennis Player of the Year Matt Sklar helped lead Atholton to County Cup

So far, 2014 has been a very memorable year for Matt Sklar. Soon after completing his sophomore tennis season at Atholton, which included regular season and Howard County Cup titles to go along with individual boys singles championships at both the county and regional tournaments, Sklar hopped on a plane to Oregon, then headed to Arizona to spend several weeks visiting his cousin.

After returning to Maryland in late July, he'll have a few weeks to relax before heading to Sweden to visit a family friend.

Even while traveling the globe, though, Sklar — the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times boys tennis Player of the Year — is taking time to stay on top of his game, hitting and running the court in the scorching, 100 degree Arizona heat.

"I'm going to make sure to work on my fitness," said Sklar, who first swung a racket at age five and has been playing competitively since age 10. "Being able to grind out those long, grueling points is going to be important next year."

Despite winning county and regional titles, and leading his team to its third consecutive County Cup, Sklar is well aware that repeating that individual and team success will require even more preparation than he put in between his freshman and sophomore seasons.

The Raiders graduate twin brothers George and Mark Mao, while many of Sklar's top challengers — including Marriotts Ridge rising junior Cade Buch and River Hill rising sophomore Prateek Swamykumar — will return to push him again next spring.

Buch, known for his booming strokes, was the only county player to defeat Sklar this spring, in the last match of the regular season. When Sklar saw him again in the county finals, he changed his approach and won the rematch in straight sets.

"He's a very technical player. He has very good ball placement," coach Michael Ashmead said of his star sophomore. "He has that talent to hold back his power in favor of consistency."

The same formula worked again against Buch in the regional finals.

"I knew there was no way that I could out hit him, so I had to outlast him," Sklar said. "When I was younger, that's how I played against everyone. This year I adapted on more of an individual basis."

Even adapting to singles play was a transition this spring for Sklar, who won a regional title at boys doubles last year alongside George Mao.

"This year it was just me," said Sklar, who has played hundreds of singles matches in USTA competition. "It's much different playing singles. You're pretty much all alone out there. In doubles you have someone else out there with you to take some of the pressure off."

As a freshman last year, Sklar was able to blend into a large field of talented singles players, including Reservoir state champion Biyik Akinshemoyin, Howard regional finalist Andrew Pagan, and teammate Scott Lee among others. Those three graduated, and River Hill freshman county finalist Alec Angradi opted not to play scholastically this spring.

"I knew there were a lot of good singles players graduating. I knew what I was going up against and I knew I could go up against anyone," said Sklar, who also dabbles in basketball, soccer and swimming. "After the regular season I definitely was thinking about" winning a county title.

At the state tournament, Sklar showed that he belonged by cruising to an opening-round win over his opponent from Dulaney, then taking three games from Whitman's Aries Wong, the eventual state champion, in a quarterfinal loss.

"The state tournament was pretty fun," said Sklar, who was Atholton's lone representative at College Park this year. "Hopefully we'll be back next year with even more people."

Even while he satisfies his wander lust this summer, Sklar is already looking forward to leading the Raiders to another successful season next spring.

"We have a deep team. Hopefully we can win (a fourth straight County Cup) next year," he said.

Beyond that, playing college tennis at a high level is an even bigger dream for Sklar.

"His goal is to play for a DI school, and he's holding up his end of the bargain," said Ashmead, who teaches Sklar at Atholton in advanced science classes. "He's a great player and a great student too.

"He had an incredible season. We could definitely depend on him ... I think he'll be up for captain next year."

Also named to the first team:

Max Balter, Howard senior. A strong singles and doubles player, Balter led the Lions at singles during the regular season, then teamed with Emma Hoesman to break through and win county and regional titles at mixed doubles. The senior duo lost in the finals of both tournaments last year, and won a match at the state tournament for the second straight season.

Connor Bivens, Marriotts Ridge junior. Strong doubles player teamed up with fellow junior Christian Tringali to lead the Mustangs to a 13-2 regular season record. Went on to advance to the regional finals, earning a trip to the state tournament, where they lost a marathon three-set match in the opening round.

Cade Buch, Marriotts Ridge sophomore. The big hitter was the only county player to defeat Sklar this spring, helping the Mustangs to 13 wins and a second-place county finish. A county and regional finalist, Buch also won a tough three-set match against Huntingtown in the opening round of the state tournament.

Collin Chase, Mt. Hebron senior. Emerged as one of the top singles players in the county, leading the Vikings to an 11-win regular season. Went on to place a strong third at the regional tournament, avenging a county tournament consolation finals loss to Atholton's George Mao.

Byron Hung, River Hill senior. After placing third in boys doubles in both the county and regional tournaments last season, Hung teamed up with his sister, Rita, this May to advance to the county and regional finals at mixed doubles. Also led the Hawks to a 13-win regular season and won an opening round match against C.H. Flowers at the state tournament before losing to the eventual state champions from Churchill.

George Mao, Atholton senior. A key leader during the Raiders' regular season and third-consecutive County Cup championship run, Mao placed third in boys singles at the county tournament and fourth at the regional tournament. Also teamed with Sklar last year to win a boys doubles regional title.

Mark Mao, Atholton senior. A team captain alongside twin brother George, Mark Mao teamed up with Collin McEwen to clinch the regular season county title with a boys doubles victory against Marriotts Ridge. The duo also advanced to the county finals and placed third at the regional tournament.

Collin McEwen, Atholton junior. One of Atholton's top returning players, McEwen clinched the regular season title alongside teammate Mark Mao, and went on to advance to the county finals before placing third at the regional tournament. A key contributor to the Raiders' regular season and Howard County Cup championships.

Christian Tringali, Marriotts Ridge junior. Formed one of the strongest doubles teams in the county along with Connor Bivens, leading Mustangs to a 13-win regular season. Bounced back from a loss to teammates Ben Klawson and Jack Weymer in the third-place match at the county tournament by advancing to the regional finals to earn a state tournament berth.

Prateek Swamykumar, River Hill freshman. The county's top newcomer helped the Hawks to a 13-3 regular season, then went on a dominant postseason run at boys doubles with teammate Nicholas Zhu. The Hawks pair rolled to county and regional titles, then upped their game to navigate a challenging state tournament field, earning Howard County's only tennis state championship this spring.

Nicholas Zhu, River Hill junior. After placing third in boys doubles at the county and regional tournaments last spring, Zhu provided the veteran leadership on this year's team that produced the county's only state title. Playing next to teammate Prateek Swamykumar, the Hawks team upset Whitman's top-seeded team in three sets in the state semifinals, then gutted out the win in the state finals over Tuscarora in straight sets. Also led the Hawks to a third-place county finish.

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