When Christina Pullano walks across the stage to get her high school diploma next month, she can do so with her head — and racquet — held high.

That’s because the Niagara Catholic senior almost single-handedly saved the Patriots’ tennis program.

“She did it all,” a beaming Brian Kurtis said this week while his team held its final practice of the season at Niagara University.

With only 11 players on the roster a year ago, and many of them not yet ready for varsity competition, Pullano made it her goal to convince others in the school to give the sport a try.

“I told them that it was a lot of fun and there was no pressure — you just come out and play,” she said. “I tried to get a lot of freshman and sophomores to come out because I knew we had a lot of seniors that were going to be gone next year.”

Her efforts combined with Kurtis’ no-cut policy, which he’s been recognized by the United States Tennis Association for, led to a whopping 30-player turnout on opening day. That dwindled to 24 full-time participants, but nonetheless gave Catholic some numbers and more importantly some positive vibes.

“It’s been really encouraging to see this many people out here,” Pullano said. “Almost all the young players have kept coming and working at it. A lot of people have made tremendous improvements throughout the year.”

None more so than sophomore Mike Richbart, who went a team-best 8-2 in singles play. This was the first time Richbart had ever played organized tennis.

“I got a lot of practice out here,” he said while preparing to hit some balls. “I thought I’d be OK, but I ended up doing better than I expected.”

Richbart’s almost automatic point was a big reason why NC also got back into the win column this season. After going through a painful campaign that ended with not a single victory a year ago, the Patriots turned it around right from the very first match this season.

“It was really surprising,” sophomore first singles player Joel Costanzo said of the win over Park. “I didn’t think we’d start off with a win.”

Richbart added, “I didn’t even realize we didn’t win a match last year. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal until everyone started getting real excited.”

NC went on to win two more matches during the year to finish at a respectable 3-7 in the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association, which is littered with much larger schools.

So, with the numbers and talent in place, the expectations are high for the future of NC tennis.

“We could have a good, winning team next year,” Richbart said. “If all the younger players stick with it and work hard, we could be good.”

Contact reporter Nate Beutel at 282-2311, ext. 2262.

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