Connor Bruce and Ellian Ascencio had big dreams for tennis this spring. Because neither one could play individually, the pair pooled their talents and achieved their objective.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, Bruce and Ascencio became state champions. The Peters Township duo defeated Shady Side Academy’s tandem of Naman Dua and Colin Gramley, 6-3, 6-3, in the PIAA Class AAA doubles championship match played at the Hershey Racquet Club.
“It’s just an unreal feeling,” Bruce said of the championship. “Ellian and I fought our way through to be best in state. It’s really awesome. We worked well together. We did it against all odds.”
From the start, the odds were against the pair, who were the No. 1 and No. 2 singles players on the Peters Township boys’ varsity tennis team. Bruce broke his ankle in a freak fall off a curb early this spring and Ascencio also could not compete in the WPIAL singles tournament because of a prior commitment. Plus, Bruce was the 2017 WPIAL singles champion.
“It was disappointing not to be able to compete in singles but I told Ellian we could go for doubles,” Bruce said.
He then predicted, “We are going to win state doubles, if not make a deep run in the tournament.”
When the Peters Township tandem did indeed win the state crown, Ascencio sat in “disbelief” after the triumph against Dua and Gramley.
“Honestly, it was a surprise to come home with gold,” he said. “We were not expected to win so it was a nice surprise to come out on top.”
Although Dua and Gramley were the WPIAL champions, having easily dispatched Bruce and Ascencio in the finals, 6-4, 6-3, the PIAA tournament was unpredictable. Brackets are predetermined before the season and teams are not seeded.
“Basically it’s just luck how you are placed. You can meet great people in the first round and lose and then others who you can beat make it to the second round,” Bruce explained. “It all depends upon where you fall and we fell into a pretty tough draw.”
While Dua and Gramley breezed into the finals, winning each of their earlier matches in two sets, Bruce and Ascencio easily dispatched LaSalle’s Aidan Vesci and Dan Porreca, 6-1, 6-0, in the opener before staving off elimination in the ensuing rounds of competition.
“The team we faced in the first round was solid but we were on our game. We played really well,” Bruce said.
In the quarterfinals, Bruce and Ascencio played well enough to win in two sets again, defeating Lower Merion’s Vikas Miller and Justin Minerva, 6-1, 7-5.
“We dominated right out of the gate but the second set was tight,” Bruce noted. “They had set point (5-4) but we clutched up and saved it then went on to win.”
In the semifinals, the PT duo almost choked up. After dropping the first set, Bruce and Ascencio outlasted Cedar Crest’s Dylan Tull and Jack Muraika, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. They had opened the match with a 4-1 lead before dropping the first set. They even led, 5-0, in the second set but allowed Tull and Muraika back in the match.
“Actually, we were shocked we blew the lead. I think we got complacent but give Cedar Crest credit, they kept their chins up and stepped up. There was definitely some nerves. It’s states after all,” Bruce said. “Everything is all on the line but we calmed down and Ellian and I just trusted each other. We changed a few things up with our formations, attacked their weaknesses and hit our shots.”
With the triumph, the Indians had their shot at redemption. Ascencio and Bruce admitted they wanted the rematch with Dua and Gramley.
“When we looked at the brackets, we saw them going to the finals but we knew we had a tough draw because Fox Chapel was down there with us. We were hungry for revenge because we did not play our best match in the WPIAL championships,” they said.
Ascencio and Bruce vowed not to make the same mistakes when they met their nemesis.
“We both stepped up to the plate,” Bruce said. “We went all in and played to win and not to lose. We played with confidence and trust. Because we played them before, we knew what to do.”
In beating Dua and Gramley, Ascencio and Bruce stuck with the strategy that got them to the finals. They came out “firing” and they “reacted” better to the pressure on a bigger stage.
“The theme throughout the whole tournament, especially in the final match,” Ascencio said, “was to stay focused, look for breaks, make serves and keep the ball in.”
Bruce also said Peters Township was in it for the long haul even after the Indians had broken serve, took a 2-0 lead and won the first set 6-3.
“We had played well but we did not think ahead. We did not think about the medals because we knew Colin and Naman could come back. We were out there for three sets no matter what. We stayed confident and we trusted each other,” Bruce said.
Ascencio trusted Bruce long before the pair won the second set, 6-3, to sweep Dua and Gramley and capture the state title.
Because Bruce was competing in a tournament in Georgia the week prior to the PIAA Championships, Ascencio worked out with his brother, Miguel, 19, who had played tennis for the Indians. Ascencio focused on “consistent volleys” and his return serves. The sophomore also gained valuable experience while playing No. 1 singles for the team in Bruce’s absence while he recovered from the ankle injury.
“Ellian really stepped up. He was heroic,” Bruce said. “He kept his cool and didn’t let the pressure get to him.”
The 16-year-old son of Lorraine and Fernando Ascencio acknowledged there indeed was pressure knowing his teammate was the better player. He said that affected him more in the WPIAL tournament than state. There was also the pressure he put on himself.
“I wanted this as bad as Conner did, so I didn’t want to let myself down,” Ascencio said. “We knew that this would be our only shot at a state title.”
Because neither one of them would be able to compete in the WPIAL singles tournament, they decided to give doubles a shot. Not because they are the top singles players on the Peters Township tennis team but rather because they are good friends, the union worked. They also have a kinship with Connor’s brother, Hunter. The Penn Stater golfer actually helped prep Ascencio for the WPIAL Championships when the latter was a freshman last year.
Of the practice round Ascencio said, “Hunter won in our group, of course.”
Because of golf, Ascencio was able to apply tactics to his approach to winning the state doubles title.
“Golf has taught me to be resilient on the tennis court because in both sports you are out their on the course or on the court by yourself,” said Ascencio. “With either game, the principles for success are the same. You have to make sure you stay focused and you cannot get frustrated with yourself. You have to move on from your mistakes.”
When it comes to their futures, neither Bruce nor Ascencio are making mistakes. Ascencio intends to focus more on golf while Bruce will pursue a path in tennis.
A two-year varsity letterwinner in golf, Ascencio was drawn to the sport while watching his older brother, Antonio, playing a video game. “I saw Tiger Woods and I thought I’d give it a shot and I fell in love with the game,” said Ascencio, who also has a younger brother, Estefano, who plays. At age 5, Ascencio started playing the game but then he “hopped” over to tennis. However, three years ago, he reverted back to golf.
“I picked up tennis because my parents wanted me to try and play. They thought tennis was more athletic,” Ascencio explained. “But, I definitely prefer golf. Right now, I am definitely focusing more on golf.”
While tennis remains a hobby for him, Ascencio has the potential to play Division I golf in college. He also has the smarts to excel academically as he maintains a 3.8 GPA. He takes two AP courses but plans to take five next year. Ascencio plans to major in biology or chemistry in college and pursue a career in the medical field.
“My first goal,” he said, “is to get a good job. I’m not focused on a golf or tennis career.”
He added enthusiastically that with two years of high school remaining he might as well try for another gold medal. “I have one state title under my belt and that’s great but I think one in golf would sweeten the deal.”
For Bruce, there is no added incentive. Though a junior, this is his last go around in high school tennis. Bruce, who was a two-time WPIAL singles finalist, will finish up credits for his diploma this fall and will matriculate to Dayton in January 2020. The 17-year-old son of Marcy Cenkovich, who was a PIAA doubles champion at Mt. Lebanon, will study business while continuing his playing career.
“At Dayton, I hope to do the same things I did for Peters Township. Help the Flyers retain their title and make a run at an NCAA championship,” he said. “As for as going pro, absolutely, I would love to play tennis for a living. I love the game and it would be my dream to make it big one day.”
Of making it big at Peters Township, Bruce acknowledged a sense of bittersweet.
“It’s definitely great to go out on a good note but I will miss it, my teammates and Brandt (Bowman). He’s a great coach but a better person. I appreciate all that he has done for me as a player and how he helped me grow as a person. He’s been very supportive of what’s best for me and right now that’s moving onto bigger things.”
The best thing is, Bruce and Asencio have etched their names in Peters Township sports history. A banner of their state championship victory will be hoisted in the gymnasium for all to see.
“That’s pretty cool,” they said. “Together we achieved something that will be history forever.”