PAWTUCKET – Sometimes the best things in life are those least expected.
There were few in August who would have thought it was going to be the Narragansett girls tennis team leaving Slater Park in October with the RIIL’s Division II state championship plaque.
Not even the Mariners themselves.
“I would not have predicted this,” said Mariners coach Peter Barlow following last Saturday’s title match. “Not at all.“…As the season unfolded, when I looked at other scores to see how we did, I said, ‘well, we’re in the hunt.’ Then, losing the 4-3, 4-3 [to Toll Gate and Westerly], ‘well, we’re still in the hunt. We’ll see what happens in the playoffs.’ They did it.”
After a successful 2012 campaign that saw the Mariners post a 10-2 record and advance to the Division II semifinals, the squad turned over half of their roster coming into 2013. They lost their No. 1 and 3 singles players, but took their biggest hit in doubles, having to restock and reshuffle a group that collectively posted an unprecedented 39-2 record.
It was a raw, new look Mariners team when they hit the courts again this fall.
“Last year we had five seniors starting and it seems like it was an older team,” Barlow said. “When you lose five seniors, it seems like a younger team. We had three or four kids move up from JV and fill right in.”
Narragansett did not miss a beat. They opened their season with a 7-0 drubbing of Lincoln – one of six shutouts in their 12 regular season matches – and never looked back, posting an identical 10-2 record to the 2012 squad, good enough for a third place finish in Division II Suburban B. Their individual match record of 67-12 was tied for second best in all of Division II.
When it came to the postseason, the third seeded Mariners added another shutout to their total with a 4-0 victory over No. 6 Classical in the quarterfinals before narrowly edging second seeded Westerly 4-2 in the semis.
The train did not stop in the finals when Narragansett met an undefeated Toll Gate team that had beaten them just nine days prior. It was a lengthy battle, but one from which the Mariners emerged victorious, winning 4-2. They avenged their only two regular season losses with their semifinals and finals wins.
Though there were some key contributors from 2012 returning for 2013, it was the constant improvement by all on the ladder that played a big factor in Narragansett’s success.
“I think what’s so special is that we all improved,” said No. 2 singles player Eily Sullivan, whose 7-5, 4-6, 7-5 win Saturday clinched the title. “It’s not like we came into this thinking we would win [a championship], but throughout the season we realized it was possible and then we made it possible.”
If that improvement was the key to Narragansett’s success, it comes in no small part from the job Barlow has done with his players. In his second year at the helm, the Mariners coach not only put together a winning season with a rebuilt roster, but also guided them on a deeper postseason run than any other in the history of Narragansett girls tennis.
Barlow, however, is quick to turn the attention away from himself and laud his players for the Mariners reaching the pinnacle, something that may just be another testament to his importance to Narragansett’s recent success.
“I just coach them and when they play try and stay out of their way,” Barlow said after the finals. “A lot of coaches will go on the court. I’ll make a comment, but they know how to play. I have faith in their play. It’s more cheering them up.
“You can’t do much when you’re not on the court. This is not basketball or football where you run plays. They’re out there by themselves.
“…I’ve always felt coaches get too much credit when teams win and too much blame when they lose. I will leave it at that. We work hard every day, we try and improve, hopefully they did.”
Next year will be telling as the Mariners will once again have to replace five starters as Olivia Scalora, Kristen Gershkoff and Mariana Sanchez, the No. 1, 3 and 4 singles players, as well as doubles players MacKenzie Page and Kara Heatherton will all be graduating in the spring.
In the end, who is most responsible for the team’s success this fall does not take away from the undeniable fact 2013 was unlike any the Mariners had ever seen.
Even if nobody saw it coming.