DuBOIS — The St. Marys tennis program has enjoyed quite the revival during the two-year tenure of coach Tim Henry, going from the basement to the penthouse — an ascension completed with a hard-fought 3-2 victory against cross-town rival Elk County Catholic Wednesday in the finals of the District 9 Class AA Team Tournament.
St. Marys was coming off a winless 2017 campaign when Henry took over the program before last season. He quickly turned things around as the Dutchmen went 9-3 in 2018 and currently sport a 10-3 mark after Tuesday’s win against top-seeded ECC.
The biggest difference between the two years under Henry is the fact that a veteran Dutch squad completed its run to a D-9 team title this year — the program’s first since 2011. A year ago, St. Marys also was the second seed in the team tournament but was upset in the semifinals, 3-2, by third-seeded Punxsutawney.
This time around it was St. Marys that pulled off the postseason upset against a tough ECC squad it split regular season matches with. Elk County won on its home court at Benzinger Park, 5-2, on April 2, while the Dutch won 4-3 on its home clay courts on May 2.
“The win is totally for them (kids) and they are the ones who did it,” said Henry. “They went from being a winless team two years to finding a way to believe in their tennis and believe in each other. That turnaround is all about our seniors. We have a good group of seniors that hung with it through a coaching change. I came in last year after that season when they were just young, and they have committed to getting better.
“We lost to this team earlier in the year, and ECC is a fabulous team. They’re deep, strong, well-coached and mentally tough too. That first loss to them just toughened us up. We knew we had to find a way in our head to play better tennis on the court.
“On our clay, that kind of psychologically gave us an advantage because most teams are afraid to come play on the clay — and tennis is mostly a head game. For these seniors to actually pull it off at home (vs ECC), it paid off here. We knew we could do it (beat them), we just had to do it on a hard court when it counted the most. And, they did that today.”
Tuesday’s matchup was another close one — just the match on clay at St. Marys — as the teams split the first four matches completed. Those outcomes meant all eyes turned to the last contest still being played — No. 2 doubles between Dutchmen Jon Chamberlin and Kyle Gardner and Crusaders Alex Breindel and Sam Cerroni.
And, that contest proved to be as tight as the overall match itself as Chamberlin and Gardner came away with a 7-5, 7-5 victory knowing their outcome would decide who won the title.
The ECC duo of Breindel and Cerroni didn’t go down without a fight and had their chances. Chamberlin and Gardner fought off a handful of game points for ECC in the 12 game of the opening set that could have forced a tiebreaker before they won the game to take the set 7-5.
The second set was another back-and-forth battle, with ECC seeming to be a game ahead most of the way. Breindel and Cerroni led 4-3 and 5-4 in the second set only to see the Dutch rally to win the final two games.
The 12th and final game was quite the battle as Breindel and Cerroni worked their way to three different game points after the game went to deuce. However, the duo committed a hitting error each time to make things deuce again.
St. Marys finally got the advantage thanks to a winner from Chamberlin, then capitalized on its only match point when an ECC shot was long on the baseline to give the St. Marys duo the victory and its team the title.
The winner-take-all showdown came about when the team’s split the first four matches.
Isaac Wortman, who won the D-9 singles title Tuesday, gave ECC a quick 1-0 lead with a 6-0, 6-1 win against Adam Snyder at No. 1 singles. When Wortman walked off the court, St. Marys actually winning the four remaining matches.
The next contest to finish was No. 1 doubles, where the St. Marys senior duo of Cody Schaberl and Lucas Erich bested Nolan Fannin and Sam Gregory in straight sets, 6-0, 6-3.
Dutchman Dylan Aiello was done shortly thereafter as he finished off a 6-2, 6-2 win against Ken Baron at third singles to put St. Marys up 2-1.
Nick Daghir gave the Crusaders a chance to win their second D-9 title in as many days when he rallied from a set down to beat Zach Hart, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, at No. 2 singles.
When Daghir finished off that three-set win, the No. 2 doubles match was closing in on the halfway point of the second — meaning all four players involved knew what was at stake.
And, it was Chamberlin and Gardner who found a way to handle to handle that pressure and deliver the team title to their squad.
“When Zach (Hart) lost that tough match, it could have rippled down and affected (doubles players),” said Henry. “We needed that last match there when everything was on the line, and it was either win it and take it (title) or lose and go home.
“They (Chamberlin, Gardner) won some big, important points. We try to visualize things like that, and I don’t know if that worked or not or if was just all instincts and adrenaline. In a district final, it was probably a mix of both, and they found a way to get it done.”
St. Marys, which is scheduled to play Johnsonburg at home today, will battle the third-place team from the WPIAL — either Thomas-Jefferson or South Park — in the opening round of the PIAA Team Tournament on Tuesday.
That state match is scheduled to be played at a District 9 site, weather-permitting. In case of rain, the match will be moved to an indoor facility that day.