And then there were eight.
Eight tennis teams left playing in the MIAA Team Tournament as the section finals got underway last Friday afternoon. Eight teams, the best in the state, fighting to extend their season at least a few more days — maybe even an extra week if they made it all the way to the state final.
On the courts of Barnstable High School, beneath the sign proclaiming that the host school had gone all the way in the MIAA tournament in 1999, the Vineyard boys prepared for their battle. The team was fresh off three post-season sweeps of Canton, Ashland and Norwell, boasting a 16-2 season record, but in a twist that seemed penned by a screenwriter, the team they would be facing, Cape Cod Academy, also happened to be the team that had handed them those two losses. They also happened to be the South Section champions for two years running.
“It’s just so close,” senior captain Reid Yennie said before the match. “It could go either way.”
Two and a half hours after the start of the South Section finals, the Vineyarders would fall to the Cape Cod rackets once more, losing the match 3-2. But with all due respect to Vince Lombardi, the scoreboard is only part of what matters. The score of the match said everything and nothing.
Earlier in the day the mood on the ferry is deceptively light, with the team packing into three booths on the Martha’s Vineyard to play cards and snack on pizza. As they step off the bus at Marstons Mills — a neutral site that is, oddly, just a few miles down the road from Cape Cod Academy — the bus driver pulls away with a simple, “Give ’em hell, guys.”
They do. At one end of the courts, Reid takes on CCA’s Jon Zelman, a fellow senior undefeated thus far at first singles. He’s never taken a match from Jon, let alone a set.
By the time the other players have finished their first games, they’re still dueling it out. And then the scores start to change. An hour later, Reid has forced the first set into a tiebreaker, and he’s up 6-5. Jon pushes back, evening the score. There’s a reason Jon Zelman hasn’t lost a match in the regular season — several reasons, actually; his serve is frighteningly accurate and powerful, and he plays the short ball just as well as the long, finding weak spots where other number ones would be unable to place them. The other players have since moved on to their second sets. Reid holds serve. He serves again, and again, and then the set is over. Reid has won, 7-6.
On the next court over, sophomore Kent Leonard has finished a first-set tiebreaker of his own. After jumping out to a 5-2 lead over Will White, Kent and his game slip. His opponent creeps back into contention until the score flips and Kent is down 5-6.
“I was getting worried; he just started picking it up,” Kent would say after the match.
But Kent has only fallen in one match this season, and he stays in the game. He and Will White push back and forth, each at the far end of his court, neither showing any sign of moving closer to the net. It’s 6-6. The volleying starts again, and Kent snaps a ball out of Will’s range to win back the game and the set. Normally a quiet player, he allows himself a sharp “Yes!” before going to get a drink of water.
Kent takes the second set 6-0 and wins the match.
He’s not the first Vineyard victory, though. Sophomore Justice Yennie, playing at number three singles, takes down opponent Sam Lahart. Justice controls this game; he’s making Sam crisscross the court, making his opponents’ sneakers squeak against the clay as they slide around trying to anticipate where the ball is going. He wins the first set 6-2 and finishes Sam off with a 6-4 set not 10 seconds before the first doubles team of Jackson McBride and Patrick McCarthy drop their match to CCA, 6-3, 6-2.
But to be fair, Jackson and Patrick are playing the doubles team — Tyler Kugler and Tyler Dewaltoff — that went all the way to the finals round of the MIAA individual tournament at the beginning of the month. They were up 2-1 in the first set, finding holes in their opponents’ game, rallying from deficits with on-point services and returns, but the Tylers are relentless, forcing mistakes, and they come back for the win 6-3, 6-2.
Then there were two. Two matches still in play, bookending the three empty courts between them. The Vineyard crowd, which is about a third the size of the CCA crowd and draws much of its strength from the whoops of the nonstarting varsity boys, is split between these two matches. The boys — Mike Piland, Harrison Rodrigues, Jackson Koorse, Sean McAndrews and Austin Stevenson — seem to know where they’re needed most. Right now they’re cheering on Justin Smith and Ryan Sawyer at second doubles, where the two are locked in a third-set showdown with Drew McCabe and John Haggerty.
Justin and Ryan took a one-game setback before surging back to go up 4-1 in the first set. Coach Ned Fennessy has told them they have to beat their opponents to the net in order to win, and they’ve done just that. They won the first set 6-2, at which point a CCA coach reminds his team that “This is where you like to be,” only to take a close loss in the next, 6-4.
The pairs are about as well-matched as teams can get. Justin is returning nearly every volley CCA hits to him, including the shots that, judging by the decisive snap of John’s arm, would normally stump an opponent. Ryan, in turn, snags the high hits that CCA returns right into the net.
The problem is that Cape Cod Academy is, in turn, returning the volleys from the Vineyard side and snagging the Vineyard high hits. And eventually, the small errors start to add up. CCA pushes past Justin and Ryan en route to a 6-3 set and a win.
With the match now tied 2-2, all eyes return to the first singles court, where Reid and Jon are in their third set after Jon took a 6-2 win in the second. They’ve been playing for two and a half hours, drawing out their last showdown. The screenwriter is apparently still tugging strings somewhere.
The team trophy handed to Reid after the match is over is, says tournament organizer Dick Norman, “a nice piece of hardware.” And, he added, “It’s just as big as that one” — that one being the shining gold trophy now in the hands of Cape Cod Academy. The Vineyard trophy is silver.
“I’m kinda disappointed,” confessed Kent on the boat ride back to Vineyard Haven. Mike Piland, keeping the mood light, explains that the team is now “going to go to Gio’s and eat away our loss.”
Ned Fennessy, who has been head coach for the varsity boys for 21 years, added his thoughts. “I really thought we had them,” he said, and then as if thinking out loud: “I was only going to do this for four years.” This was the first time he had ever led a team to the section finals.
“They all played as hard as they could, and that’s all I can ask,” the coach said. He focused on the highlights of the day — the first set take-down of Jon Zelman, the Kent Leonard turnaround, the fact that Justice Yennie finished his season with a perfect 17-0 record, the support the starters get from their teammates on the sidelines.
“I’m proud of the kids who don’t get to play — it’s tough for them, but it’s a credit to them,” Mr. Fennessy said.
“Today’s match was the best of the year.”