PAWTUCKET – Mission complete.
It was a moment months, if not years, in the making. Slowly, methodically, the East Greenwich High School girls tennis team churned their way through their 2013 schedule, laying waste to all who stood in their path. Along the way, the Avengers did what they could to stay focused and grounded, despite their success, all the while building to this one, final crescendo.
The Avengers put the exclamation point on their perfect season Saturday afternoon at Slater Park when they overthrew two-time defending champion LaSalle, 4-3, to capture the school’s first ever RIIL Division I state team tennis championship.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said East Greenwich coach Marc Brocato. “Can there be a better feeling in the world than to watch a bunch of kids that worked so hard to reach a goal and then attain it? Just the smiles and the tears and their faces just gleaming was the most amazing thing I could have ever witnessed. It’s incredible. Incredible feeling.”
The Avengers made it look easy at times as they seemingly waltzed through their second season in Division I and into the playoffs as the tournament’s No. 1 seed. They were considered amongst the best in the state from the beginning, but became the favorite when they traveled to LaSalle mid-September and scored a 5-2 win, the first time the Rams had lost since 2011. East Greenwich won all 12 of their team match during the regular season, averaging just one individual loss per match.
Even in the playoffs the Avengers made it look easy with a swift, authoritative 4-0 win in the semifinals over a Smithfield team that had beaten them in the Division II team finals in 2010 and 2011. As Brocato would tell his team prior to their final match, however, championship are not awarded on merit, but earned and the Rams were not about to let their chance at a three-peat slip away without a fight.
“It’s funny. You win a lot of 6-1 matches, a lot of 5-2 matches and people think that it’s a calk walk,” Brocato said. “These girls won the matches not just by throwing their racket on the court. They go and beat their opposition who are good players, who are fairly equal in comparison to how well they can play. It shows you what exactly these kids are all about that they went out and win that type of match.
“…I knew [the finals were] going to be close. LaSalle has a lot of tournament-tested players and they’re kids that aren’t going to back down from a situation like that. I think they have a few more tournament players than we do. So my kids, it’s a testament to them that they didn’t really freak out over the entire situation or the moment. We really preached the entire week to embrace your fears. It’s ok to be scared a little bit and as soon as you embrace being afraid of something, it all of a sudden starts to diminish and it lessens. It’s a good lesson in athletics, it’s a good lesson in life.”
LaSalle proved they were not going to roll over for the Avenger juggernaut early as they came out and took the match’s first point when Natalie Pitocco quickly put away the No. 4 singles match 6-0, 6-1 against Catherine Karbasiafshar, who had scored the clinching point in East’s semifinal victory.
Foes just one week prior when they faced in the finals of the RIIL’s individual tournament, No. 1 and 2 singles players Aleksandra Drljaca and Peri Sheinin were back on the same side of the net when they returned to Slater Park and as they had done some many times this season, the teammates led the Avengers’ charge as both won in straight sets to put East Greenwich back in the lead, 2-1.
Drljaca barely saw any threat from Lauren Bertsch at No. 1 singles, winning 6-1, 6-1. Sheinin also cruised through her first set at No. 2, winning it 6-1 against Dayna Reilly, but struggled to pull away in the second. The two traded games back-and-forth in until Sheinin broke serve late en route to the 6-4 win.
As quickly as it came, however, the lead was gone as LaSalle tied it 2-2 with a win at No. 1 doubles.
Emma Falkenberry and Eleanor Fulghum took the court in search of vengeance for their loss to the Rams’ top duo of Kat Braganca and Lindsay Brazenor in the semifinals of the RIIL’s doubles championship. Saturday’s match was tighter, but the outcome still the same as Braganca and Brazenor won 6-4, 6-4.
While Falkenberry and Fulghum could not reverse their fortunes against the Rams, East’s No. 3 doubles team of Brooke Fennell and Romina Garakani did. After losing to Olivia Gould and Allison Paul 6-4, 7-5 during the regular season, Garakani and Fennell rallied when it mattered most, putting together a 7-5, 6-3 win to move the Avengers within one of the title.
No team had pushed EG to the brink all season as they had won every match by a score of 5-2 or better. If, however, they were to win their first Division I title, they were going to have to win their first 4-3 match in the process as Sierra Musumeci and Elizabeth Healey evened things for LaSalle, 3-3, with their 6-4, 6-3 win over Veronica Comito and Samantha Land at No. 2 doubles.
East Greenwich’s title hopes were going to come down to Heather Shen’s match at No. 3 singles.
“There’s definitely a little bit of nerves,” said Shen of the realization the state title rested on her racket, “a little bit of pressure the last couple of games, but I think I was able to handle it and able to focus my energy on winning that point, winning that match.”
The match was into the second set when Comito and Land’s match ended, with East’s senior tri-captain having picked up a 6-4 win in a heated and contentious first set with LaSalle’s Caroline Dunn, bad-blood still lingering from when the two faced in the regular season.
As tempers flared throughout the first set and the pressure ramped up in the second, Dunn seemed to crumble, while Shen’s game only seemed to get better.
“I think it’s a matter of mental toughness,” Shen said. “That’s what Mr. Brocato always said and, in the end, it’s just focusing that energy.
“Having my teammates cheer me on I was able to funnel that positive energy through my play.”
Dunn took the first game of the set, but there was no comeback to be had. Shen put the hammer down, winning five straight. The LaSalle junior took the seventh game to make it 5-2, but the match was all but over.
“In the middle of her second set, up 5-1 with people screaming at her from LaSalle and she’s smiling,” Brocato said. “That tells you what Heather Shen’s all about. That kid just gets it. She absolutely gets it and she’s a captain for a reason. She amazingly embraced the situation that she was in and she went out and beat a girl that is a tough player to beat.”
With all eyes on them, there was along rally between the opponents at match point with Dunn playing a ball out of bounds to seal LaSalle’s fate. Shen had finished off her 6-4, 6-2 win and the Avengers stormed the court to celebrate their championship.
For Shen and the rest of the senior class, Saturday’s win marked the culmination of brilliant careers by capturing the one prize that had eluded them in their previous three seasons. Heading into the final, the class of 2014 had put together a regular season record of 51-1, racking up the individual accolades along the way, and was about to play in its third championship match. Despite all their success, however, having twice lost in the finals and once in the semis, they had never been the last team standing.
The ultimate of exclamation points.
“It feels so good,” said Drljaca. “My freshman and sophomore year we lost in the DII finals twice to the same team, so that was a little bit disheartening, but now we’re in DI and won the state title. It’s just amazing. It feels so great.”
The seniors in the lineup – Drjaca, Shen, Falkenberry and Comito – were pivotal in Saturday’s win, but the Avengers had been a team that thrived all season because of the depth of their lineup. The title match was no different as the entire ladder had to do their part in putting together yet another team win, their 14th of the season.
“An undefeated season in Division I, it’s just amazing,” Brocato said. “I look at our team and, yeah, we have the two best players in the state, but we also have kids that have completely earned this win. It was not handed to them.
“I told them on the bus ride over, I said ‘No state championships are ever handed to you. You have to earn them. You have to go win them.’ They went out and did it.”