by Andrew Garda
As was the case for all spring sports in March of 2020, Montclair High School’s tennis team found themselves walking off the court, unsure what the future would bring as the world shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Ultimately, the spring sports season was canceled, and head coach Guy Rabner could only watch as his seniors lost their final season at Montclair.
“I still remember, you know, when we stopped after the first week,” he recalled. “It was like, oh my God, are we going to be out for a week or two? Or how is this going to affect the season? Initially I think we didn’t really have a sense of the longevity of what was going to happen.”
Rabner said that last year was disappointing, as the team was extremely talented, the core group formed around twin singles players Andrew and Kevin Wallace, who have now graduated. This year, the team is getting a chance to play, and Rabner is very grateful that is the case.
“We obviously had a really good team two years ago,” the coach said, referring to the team that won a state sectional title in 2019. “We were going to also have a really experienced, strong team last year, and it just faded away. So, I do remind the kids often to say, look, we’re having a season. We could have a relatively normal season.”
A few things have to happen for that to be the case; most importantly, the team has to stay healthy and avoid a COVID-19 shutdown.
To that end, the Mounties are following all NJSIAA and MHS protocols, from temperature checks to mask wearing when off the court to following safe practices when not at practice or matches.
Part of the responsibility comes down to the kids doing what they are supposed to do when not around the coaches. Rabner feels team members, excited as they are to play, are taking their responsibilities seriously, especially when it comes to his team leaders.
That has already translated to tennis as well as to the COVID protocols.
“My captains have done a really good job of maintaining focus,” he said. “They’ve had a lot of captains’ practices and with the warm weather, even over the winter. So they’ve gotten people that have been willing to come out and play.”
Rabner only has one senior this year, and that athlete had never played for the team before.
“This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “We have one senior, and the senior was not on the team, wasn’t even playing tennis two years ago. So he’s like new to me as well.”
So those off-season captains’ practices could be key for what is a very young and inexperienced team, which would have otherwise had to deal with a reduced ramp-up of practices leading to the season due to COVID-19 restrictions and scheduling.
“So I think they’ve sort of got the opportunity to bond beforehand a little bit, and they’ve been outside, they’ve been out and playing, and they were even out the week before we started playing [together],” Rabner said.
Not only is the single senior new to the team — many of the other players are as well.
“New team, like completely new,” Rabner said. “Everybody that you remember from two years ago, except for one player, is gone. Everyone [else] is new to varsity. So what we have is a lot of inexperience. I mean, we have ability and we have some talent, but we don’t have any high-level tournament player that’s going to step in and be a number one or anything like that.”
The coach said the biggest hurdle on the court will be learning how to play — and how to win — in high-pressure moments. His team may have played tennis before, but playing a friendly or practice game is one thing, facing top schools like Newark Academy with a tournament championship on the line is something entirely different.
To help sharpen his team, Rabner has a pair of scrimmage matches scheduled, one of which is against a team that is expected to be among the best in the state.
The first one, however, was against what Rabner feels is a team around the Mounties’ level, Mountain Lakes, on Tuesday, April 13, at their home courts at Mountainside Park.
After that they will face Delbarton, a team that is far above where Montclair can play right now.
Rabner isn’t worried about beating Delbarton. He just wants his team to know what it’s like to face a big challenge. Meanwhile, the match against Mountain Lakes will be a good barometer for the team to know where it’s at in terms of preparation.
“So the kids will see what the top teams look like and how sort of far behind [we] are,” he explained. “And they’ll also get a sense of a team on their own level and have, hopefully, a good competitive match against them.”
Rabner feels that the experience against a team like Delbarton, no matter how the team does, will serve the Mounties well against teams on their own level throughout the season — a season that still needs athletes to do what they need to when they are off the court for it to occur.
“I’m telling the kids all the time, you’ve got to keep that mask on. It’s time to keep up with the protocols,” he said. “You feel sick at all, you have to say something, because it doesn’t just affect you. It affects the whole team.
“But I think they’re thrilled to have a season, especially in Montclair where they’re not even in school [and] they haven’t even been in the classroom, so that the idea of them getting a season is maybe even more of a joy than anything because they’re doing something they love and they’re actually getting to do it.”
MHS’ season was supposed to start Monday, April 19, against crosstown rival Montclair Kimberley Academy, but the match had to be postponed. Now its season will open at Livingston High School on Wednesday, April 21, at 4 p.m.