PAWTUCKET – Over the course of a season, a team can become like family.
Sometimes nuclear, sometimes extended, but when a group of individuals come together for an extended period of time, giving everything they have for each other, working towards a common goal, it is easy for lasting bonds to be forged.
The East Greenwich High School girls tennis team is one of those teams, but on Sunday afternoon at Slater Park, it was civil war for the Avengers. For two hours, Aleksandra Drljaca and Peri Sheinin were not teammates, or family or even distant cousins as East’s top two singles players
went head-to-head for the RIIL state individual tennis title. The first time in three decades teammates would face each other in the tournament’s finals.
Already considered by some to be the top two players in the state for the way both deftly handled all who stood in their path as they compiled perfect records throughout the regular season, they proved as much as they breezed to the tournament’s finals. Drljaca, a senior in pursuit of her second straight individual title and the tournament’s top seed, made it look easy with victories of 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0, 6-1 and 6-1, 6-1 en route to the finals. Sheinin, a freshman, struggled a bit in comparison playing from the tournament’s sixth seed, but advanced with victories of 6-0, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 and 6-2, 6-3.
The two had yet to stand on opposite sides of the net from each other, however, so the question had lingered for many since August as to who really was the Avengers’ top dog. The savvy vet hampered much of the season by a lingering ankle injury, unable to do much warming up on Sunday, but with the experience of having been through the ringer or the fresh-faced rookie, playing in a homemade uniform being too small for any of the school’s regulation team uniforms, but with an unmatched power game?
On Sunday the answer was Sheinin, but by not much more of a margin than the diminutive freshman is tall, as she eked out a 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 victory.
“It’s not like it was a waltz of a win,” said East Greenwich coach Mark Brocato. “It was a tightly contested match and it could have gone either way. That’s tennis, there are no guarantees. No. 1 is not always going to beat No. 2 and No. 2 is sometimes going to knock off no. 1.
“…It was a close match that could have gone either way. That could have gone to a third set and who knows what would have happened in the third set?”
The crowd on hand knew early they were in for a lengthy battle as the two fiery combatants went to deuce in the first three games. Everything proceeded as it should until the fifth game when Sheinin broke serve to take the match lead for the first time at 3-2. The two titans held serve in games six and seven before Sheinin pushed Drljaca to the brink, easily taking the eighth 40-15 for a 5-3 set lead.
On the verge of falling behind by a set, Drljaca showed the kind of game to be expected from a player that had lost just two matches in her high school career entering the tournament, quickly taking the next three games to reclaim the lead at 6-5. The magic was short lived, however, as Sheinin held serve in the next game to force a tiebreak.
“I was really relieved to get back the 6-5 game when I was down,” said Sheinin, “and once I was into the tiebreak, I just told myself, ‘be more patient.’ That’s what I did. I kind of just waited for her to go too much, which fortunately she did, but I also had to move her a little bit.”
Patient the freshman was in the tiebreak, giving up the first two points before reeling off seven straight to secure the first set.
“I thought both players played a real smart game strategy-wise,” Brocato said. “…You could see Peri was hitting a few drop shots, trying to bring Aleks in. It was not an unusual scenario whatsoever. It played out the way I thought it was going to play out. Exquisite ground strokes on both sides. Aleks chasing Peri around, Peri trying to move Aleks around, it was pretty cool strategically.”
With momentum on her side, Sheinin took a big lead early in the second set, winning the first three games. As she had before, however, the reigning champ battled back, sweeping the fourth game and taking three of the next four games to close the gap in the set to 4-3.
“She is such a fighter,” Sheinin said. “One thing I said going into the match was ‘she’s a fighter, don’t give it up.’ In both sets, I didn’t give it up, she took it. She really won both games of my serve, I didn’t lose them.”
Drljaca had a few nice winners in the eighth game of the set, but a costly double fault helped Sheinin come away with the win and get to within one game of the state title. She made it to match point in the ninth game, but the championship ceremony was delayed slightly as Drljaca broke serve once again and looked to be in command in the 10th, jumping out to a 40-0 lead. That is where the rally ended, however, as Sheinin won four straight points to end her teammates reign and capture the state title.
“Great feeling. Amazing,” Sheinin said. “…I was just trying to be really patient and keeping it low was one of my strategies, especially against a player who hits the ball very nicely like Aleksandra.
“…When I went into this tournament, I said it’s not going to be easy. It’s really not going to be easy. I guess the moment I thought I could do this was match point.”
For the third straight season, the defending state champion made it to the final match, but was unable to defend the crown.
“It was a really tight match,” said Drljaca, “could have gone either way. We both play really aggressive. It was tight.
“Obviously you want to be two-time champion, but it doesn’t always happen like that. She won today and that’s fine. We move on and next week we have team playoffs, I’m very excited for that and looking forward to that.”