Add Hollidaysburg Area High School's Amir Alkhafaji to a list of athletes who improved their game by developing a better mental attitude.
Alkhafaji, a senior, earned the District 6 Class AAA singles championship with a straight sets, 6-2, 6-3, victory over Altoona junior Chad Allender on Saturday morning at the Leopold Tennis Complex.
The area's top two scholastic singles players have developed a friendly rivalry the past couple years and Alkhafaji had the better of it Saturday.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Hollidaysburg’s Amir Alkhafaji consoles Altoona’s Chad Allender following Alkhafaji’s victory in the district finals.
"I think [Allender] beat me two-out-of-three or three-out-of-four last year," Alkhafaji said. "I know he beat me the the majority of the time.
"When I played Chad last year my mental game wasn't as strong as his," Alkhafaji said. "Through club soccer, in a more competitive environment, I have a better mental game and it helped me a lot today."
Even though he had beaten Allender in a regular-season match, Alkhafaji, the top seed, didn't take anything for granted in the district final against his third-seeded Mountain Lion opponent.
"I came in feeling extremely nervous because this was my first singles district championship," Alkhafaji said. "I'm always excited to play Chad, though, because he and I are such good friends on and off the court.
"We have a lot of respect when we play and it was an honor to play him."
Hollidaysburg coach Brian Denis couldn't say enough about Alkhafaji's play.
"It was tough today with the windy conditions and it made him play a super, smart match," Denis said. "He's a great player and deserves it because he worked his tail off the last 12 months.
"A lot of kids who get to be juniors and seniors kind of trail off because they have jobs and other stuff," Denis noted, "but he really improved tremendously. He's a classy kid and nobody deserves it more."
Denis said Alkhafaji is Hollidaysburg's first district singles champ since 1996 when Robbie Waibel claimed the crown for the Golden Tigers.
"What an honor for Amir in his senior year," Denis added.
Juniata High's Isaac Eck repeated as the Class AA champion by turning back Bishop Guilfoyle's Jimmy Burke, 6-4, 6-1, at Leopold in a battle of first and second seeds.
Burke jumped out to an early lead in the first set before Eck settled in and rallied for a 6-4 win. The Juniata junior dominated the second set after losing the first game.
"I was happy with how I competed," Eck said. "My goal is to go a little farther in states this year."
Eck, a junior, plays a lot of USTA matches and tournaments around the state and said his serve has been his biggest weapon and his aggressiveness is the foundation of his game.
"I want to improve my defense so when I play bigger and stronger opponents I can be competitive," said Eck.
A junior, Eck won the D6-AA doubles as a freshman and added D6-AA singles titles the past two springs. He praised the play of Burke, admitting the BG player had him off his game early on Saturday.
"The style he plays is very difficult," Eck said. "Everything comes back with not a lot of pace, but he executed what he wanted to do, so kudos to him because he played a great match."