by Andrew Garda
The Montclair Kimberley Academy and Montclair High School girls tennis teams met last Wednesday, Sept. 25, with the Cougars nearly sweeping the Mounties, 4-1.
It was a big win for MKA, especially considering their top singles player, freshman Hanna Ganchi, was out of commission due to injury.
“I thought everybody stepped up in a spot, and really competed,” said MKA head coach Bill Wing. “Montclair High’s a nice team. They fought hard and we definitely stepped up everywhere.”
Wing was especially pleased with senior Emily Talkow — normally the second single — who stepped up to the No. 1 spot and defeated Montclair’s Maddie Schanen in straight sets, 6-1, 6-1. He said Talkow has always performed at a high level for the Cougars, though.
“Emily’s been a stalwart at two for the past couple of years,” Wing said.
Wing has been pleased with his team this year, seeing growth in everyone from Talkow to his freshman first singles to the doubles teams.
“Obviously if you get a No. 1 singles player as a freshman, that’s nice,” he said. “We’ll see how Hanna’s injury works out. Hopefully she’s able to come back on the court soon, but it’s been nice to have her step in at one. And Emily can still play two, Kiara [Bhatia] has had a nice season at three. Our doubles teams have had nice chemistry for the year, and that’s probably one of our strengths, the way we play doubles.”
The strength of the doubles pairings — primarily Taylor Liverson and Ainsley Manlowe at first doubles, and Sabrina Noble and Elana Pearlmutter at second doubles — comes from experience, according to Wing.
“We’ve got three seniors in there that have played a lot of doubles,” said Wing. “So, they’ve got good doubles experience. They play how we want to play, they work well together, and like playing together. That’s a big key.”
For MHS, the loss was disappointing but not totally unexpected. Head coach Guy Rabner, who took over the boys team last spring, was installed as head coach of the girls just before the end of the 2018-19 school year.
He wasn’t sure what to expect from the Mountie girls and said it’s not easy to gauge the success or failure of this year.
“It’s kind of hard to know [what I think] because I didn’t know anyone on the team going into it,” he said. “It’s like with the boys, I had the same sort of thing. You have ideas [based on] what people tell you but you have to go out and see it.”
What he’s seen this fall is encouraging. The Mounties (6-7) reached the quarterfinals of the Essex County Tournament in September, and are one win away from a perfect 5-0 in Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division play, which would give the Mounties their first division title since the conference formed in 2009.
“Frankly, we competed better than I had kind of hoped, I didn’t know how good we were going to be,” Rabner said. “I know our record wasn’t so great last year but I think we’ve improved on it this year. Aside from MKA, we’ve lost to top-10 teams in the state every single match. And the teams we’re close with, we’ve competed well against, and in many cases beaten. So, I’m really proud of the kids and how they’ve stepped it up a little bit.”
More than anything, Rabner is hoping the success the team has had helps get them to believe in themselves and their ability, so that they can create a winning culture.
Like Wing, Rabner said he has been very impressed with his doubles pairings, Kennedy Bagley-Fortner and Eve Friend at No. 1, and Quinnie Parisi and Abby Russman at No. 2.
“I think all of them have stepped it up,” he said. “I think the teams themselves; they’ve really bonded a little bit, they really work well together. So I’m happy with that.”
Even though they came up short, Rabner said the doubles showed him something.
“Our doubles, they competed,” he said. “They lost a lot of close games today, but what I love about my doubles teams is that they always can compete. No matter who they play. And they did that today. They didn’t win enough games and win enough points, but they were right there and they competed. That’s what I want.”
Beyond the doubles teams, Rabner said third singles Lola Kapila has really begun to stand out, something she did again Wednesday as the only Mountie to come away with a match in hand, beating MKA’s Lulu Halbert in straight sets, 6-2, 6-0.
“Lola started out really slow this year, and then all of a sudden a couple of weeks ago it just clicked,” Rabner said. “And she’s been beating everyone since then. She is confident, she understands what it means to win and she can do it now. The last two weeks she’s been our MVP for sure.”
Rabner said it’s very hard to single out any one player, though, and said everyone has been working hard.
“Our first single [Maddie Schanen] has won matches where I didn’t think she was better than her opponent, but she was scrappy and went out to win those matches,” Rabner said. “Our second singles [Lily McDonald], the same. She’s won matches, she’s got really good strokes and she’s won some of the matches against pretty good players.”
Wing said much the same thing, and was especially pleased with how his team responded to the absence of Ganchi, because with Talkow moving to first singles, the players behind her had to step up.
That’s what Bhatia and Halbert did, even if Halbert dropped her match to Kapila. As far as Wing is concerned, the experience, win or lose, is always a good one for a player to have.
“It’s still a learning process. We’re just still inexperienced and we’ve had some tough, really tough matches,” Wing said. “I mean we’ve played Livingston, played at Kent Place, and our conference schedule, with Millburn and Newark Academy. There’s just no let-up.”
That schedule can wear on a team, but it also keeps a team on their collective toes.
“You’re always having to fight every day,” he said. “It’s fun tennis to watch and to be a part of.”
For Rabner, the season has been one of building on what they’ve learned each week.
“What I’m happy about is how they’ve improved,” he said. “That’s really what you’re looking for, that and their ability to compete. As a coach, I think that what you want in all of your players, because you can’t control that. All you can control making your players as prepared as you can.”
Both MHS and MKA will now turn their focus to the NJSIAA team tournament, which gets underway this week.
The Mounties are the No. 5 seed in the North 1, Group IV bracket, and are slated to host No. 12 Clifton in the first round on Thursday, Oct. 3, before a likely road trip to fourth-seeded Morristown on or before Tuesday, Oct. 8. Should they advance, the sectional semifinals, likely at top-seeded and Essex County Tournament champion Livingston, would be held Oct. 11.
MKA is the No. 4 seed in North Jersey, Non-Public B, and will host No. 5 Saddle River Day in the quarterfinals on or before Oct. 8.