While some may view it as a failure when a team is unable to convert on winning back-to-back championships, when they fell in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Division II title match last spring, it was a sign of things to come for a promising East Greenwich High School boys tennis team.
After a perfect season in 2011, en route to a state title, despite a good amount of turnover on the roster and a new coach, the Avengers put themselves in good shape to repeat as champions in 2012. Behind then first-year coach Marisa Salvadore, EG put together a 14-2 regular season and fought all the way to the championship match against Cranston West.
This spring, the Avengers will have the experience, returning all but three players who took the court for that final match in 2012.
Unlike previous years when they were the big fish in the Division II pond, however, EG has taken a step up and will be competing in Division I this spring. Rather than run scared, Salvadore and her squad are embracing their newfound underdog roll.
“Some teams who have been in Division I might think, ‘Well, they’re coming up from Division II’ and they may discount us,” said Salvadore, “but I think we have a fighting chance to steal four or more points in a lot of matches and that’s what it takes.”
Though they are returning many players and have talent, there is still a lot of youth on the team, with just two seniors on the roster and having two of their top four singles players coming from the freshman class“We’re still young.” Said Salvadore of her team’s experience level in the face of stiffer competition in 2013. “We only have two seniors and we’re going up a division. They can feel it, but I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. They are definitely challenged every step of the way across the board. It will only help their games.”
The Avengers also have the advantage of calling upon Shiv Patel to play in the team’s No. 1 singles spot. It is the third year the junior will hold down the #1 spot for EG, who is also amongst the best players in the state.
“He’s amazing,” said the Avs coach of her No. 1. “I can always expect 150 percent. He runs down every ball. Things that you think are a winner, he manages to get a racket on it. Maybe not turn the point over, but that puts so much pressure on the other side to see this kid doesn’t give up on a ball. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Despite being smaller in stature than most of his competition, Patel’s relentless attitude becomes his biggest asset on the court.
“His heart is probably his biggest strength. He’s not a huge guy, but he doesn’t give up. His feet constantly move,” commented Salvadore. “All kids playing #1 know how to stroke the ball, but going in there with that composure, not getting too emotional, you can stay the course. If we can find a game plan that can work for him, I’m confident he can pull it out because he does not give up.”
Patel’s prowess was on display on Tuesday afternoon as the Avengers matched up against South Kingstown, winners of the past 14 Division I tennis titles. With the overall team match tied 3-3, Patel battled back against SK No. 1 Derrick Yang and won the second set 6-3 after dropping the first by the same score. The Patel-Yang match was the last of the day to finish and with the game on the line, Patel came through for the Avengers, winning the third set 6-3 to notch a 4-3 EG win.
“Very proud of my guys today,” said Salvadore after Tuesday’s win. “It’s kind of like slaying the dragon. When you face South Kingstown, they have such a long-storied history of success. I know they lost a lot of players from last year, but they always come in ready to compete. They go for blood. They smell it and they go for it… I was really happy to see my guys, even when they were down, they stayed very positive.”
Off to a 2-1 start, the new kid on the block is already turning heads after knocking off the long-standing champs. Whether or not they return to the title match remains to be seen and may be a lot to ask from a first year Division I team, but Salvadore and company will let you know it is a long way from over.