It's been a busy school year for Tamaqua exchange student Gonzalo Hernandez Cascante.

Hernandez Cascante hit the ground running and hasn't slowed down since arriving from Spain on Aug. 20.

Not only has he had his hands full adapting to the American school system and trying to perfect his already very fluent use of the English language, but he has also been a huge part of the Blue Raider sports program.

Hernandez Cascante displayed his skill as a member of the Tamaqua soccer program during the fall sports season, scoring 23 goals and helping the Raiders qualify for both the Schuylkill League and District 11 Class AA playoffs.

He considered playing basketball, but instead opted to devote his energies to following the extremely successful Tamaqua girls basketball team.

Hernandez Cascante said he attended every Lady Raider game except one this season which isn't a huge surprise considering his host family for this school year.

"I had no trouble getting to the girls basketball games because I'm staying with the Zehner family," laughed Hernandez Cascante.

That's Zehner, as in Amy Zehner, the three-time TIMES NEWS Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

"I loved basketball season," said Hernandez Cascante. "I never played any organized basketball because I play club soccer year round when I'm in Spain.

"But I play the sport with my friends and I really like it. I even considered trying out for the boys team. But I thought that it might be difficult because of Amy's basketball schedule. So I just decided to follow the girls team."

But basketball isn't the only sport that Hernandez Cascante "plays on occasion" with his friends in Spain.

He also likes to play some tennis.

And although he has never played on an organized team, competed in sanctioned tournaments, or taken formal lessons, you would never know by the success he has enjoyed playing at No. 1 singles for Tamaqua this spring.

Hernandez Cascante finished the regular season with a 12-0 singles record. Tuesday night, he earned the No. 1 seed for the District 11 Class AA Singles Tournament that opens today at Westend Racquet Swim & Fitness Club in Allentown.

An outstanding natural athlete, Hernandez Cascante said he has played tennis since he has been about 8 years old, but never considered playing it on an organized level at home in Spain.

"Honestly, I don't have time to join a basketball or tennis league at home because I play soccer 12 months a year and that takes up most of my time," he said. "Soccer is definitely my first love. In Spain, we don't play for our high schools. We play for club teams in our town. That's why the season goes year round.

"But I love sports. So when there are no soccer games, my friends and I are always playing some sport. That's where I learned to play basketball and tennis."

Tamaqua coach Jennel Yelito said she believes Hernandez Cascante can play with some of the top tennis players in the district.

"I think he can be competitive with anyone," she said. "He's a natural. He had some areas he needed to work on like his backhand and his second serve, but for the most part he has a very solid game.

"The thing about Gonzalo is that he really hasn't been pushed much this year. He just does what he has to. It will be interesting to see how he reacts if he faces one of the top players at districts. I think it will bring out the best in him."

One thing that Yelito has already seen is how well Hernandez Cascante has adapted to the school, the language and his teammates in the short time he has been in the country.

"He is really well liked by everyone at school and he's a great teammate," said Yelito. "He's always trying to help his teammates and he's always encouraging them at practice and in our matches."

Hernandez Cascante will leave the United States to head back to Spain on June 7.

"I've really enjoyed my time in Tamaqua," he said. "School has been great and I've made a lot of friends through sports.

"The only down side has been the weather. In Spain, unless you live in the mountains, the winter is much shorter and not nearly as cold and snowy. And I never played tennis in weather as cold as we played some of our matches in earlier this spring."

With the school year and his time in the United States quickly winding down, Hernandez Cascante said he does have one thing he would still like to accomplish before he leaves to go back.

"A district championship would be great," he said with a smile. "Amy [Zehner] got one in basketball. I would love to get one in tennis."

*****

DISTRICT 11 TENNIS SEEDINGS ..... Hernandez-Cascante isn't the only area athlete to earn a high seed for the District 11 Singles Tennis Tournament. Northwestern's Henry Paiste is the No. 4 seed in the Class AA Tourney. Hernandez Cascante and Paiste are part of an eight-person TIMES NEWS area contingent in the AA field that opens play with first and second round matches today at Westend Racquet Swim & Fitness Club in Allentown.

Joining them will be a trio of Jim Thorpe players Mitch Franko, Corey Ligenza and James Denny; Hernandez-Cascante's Tamaqua teammate Evan Stoll; Palmerton's Devon Frey and Lehighton's James Svercheck.

The Blue Raiders' Stoll and the Olympians' Denny were the lone area players to be paired off against each other in the opening round.

In Class AAA, which opens play on Friday, Pleasant Valley's Vince Vuolo will be the only local player competing. The Bears' No. 1 singles' player drew Pocono Mountain West's Weston Strubert in the first round of the tournament.

Both the Class AA and AAA fields will hold their quarterfinal and semifinal rounds on Saturday afternoon. Championship and consolation matches will be played on Monday.

*****

NO-NO'S ..... On both ends of the campus of Pleasant Valley High School, Russell Baldino and Rikki Correll had memorable days on the pitching mound. Both Bears' pitchers kept Pocono Mountain West's bats in check by tossing no-hitters.

Correll finished with seven strikeouts and her offense supplied her with plenty of run support as the Bears cruised to a 16-0 Mountain Valley Conference win over the Panthers, in a game that was called after three innings because of the 15-run rule.

On the baseball diamond, Baldino also received plenty of run support as the Bears posted a 15-0 MVC win in four innings over PM West. While his offense was able to chalk up the runs with ease, Baldino made things difficult for the opposition with four strikeouts and one walk to earn a no-hitter for the day.

*****

A PERFECT KNIGHT ..... Kayla Knight has been having a fine senior campaign on the mound with the Marian's softball team.

Knight opened the regular season by throwing a no-hitter against MMI Prep. Then last Thursday, the Fillie did that one better by tossing a perfect game.

She finished the game with seven strikeouts, didn't surrender a walk, and held Lourdes Regional without a hit to move to 5-0 on the season.

Meanwhile, Knight helped herself offensively by recording three hits and three RBIs as Marian rolled to a 16-0 win over the Red Raiders in a game stopped after three innings due to the 15-run rule.

*****

AMBER OUT ... It's hasn't been a very lucky spring for Tamaqua's returning state medal winners in track.

A few weeks ago, Ali Updike, who captured gold in the javelin, was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury at practice.

This week, the Raiders' Amber Carroll, who captured a seventh place state medal in the 3200 meters a year ago, had her regular season cut short when she had to undergo an emergency appendectomy.

Carroll is still hoping she can return for the postseason.