BY ANDREW GARDA
It may have taken an extra year to get there, but Montclair High School’s boys tennis team will get the chance to defend its 2019 NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 title.
Last week the No. 2-seeded Mounties swept visiting No. 6 seed Kearny off the Mountainside courts with a 5-0 win that saw them take every set and most of the games.
Now, MHS takes on top-seeded Bergen Tech on Tuesday, June 1, on the road, in a repeat of that 2019 matchup.
In 2019, the Mounties felt a bit slighted heading into the match, believing they should have been named the top seed in the section. This year, with no seniors and a very young team, the Mounties are rightfully underdogs, but know they can compete with the Knights if they play their best tennis.
Winning the 2021 title can’t make up for a lost 2020, but it could go a long way toward establishing this Mounties group as a team to be reckoned with going forward.
“Last year [before the season was canceled] I felt like we were the favorites,” said head coach Guy Rabner. “This year, I feel like we’ll probably be underdogs. [Bergen Tech is] a little bit more accomplished this year. They have a little bit better team than they had [in 2019]. So, if we’re going to win, we have to play really well. Not that we can’t, but we’d have to play at the top of our games and, you know, really come through.”
Montclair has come through a few times this past year, which has been a bit of a roller coaster, with big wins over rival Montclair Kimberley Academy and West Essex paired with losses to Millburn — including in the Essex County semifinals — and Newark Academy.
Like Newark Academy, Bergen Tech is a top-shelf opponent, but Montclair is riding high after sweeping Kearny on May 27.
It started with a quick second singles match where junior Sol Cornejo made short work of his opponent with a pair of 6-0 sets. The first doubles pairing of Noah Fishman and Elijah Ruderman and third singles freshman Miles Lee swept their opponents as well, and the second doubles pair of juniors Noah Pierre and Liam Rougebec dropped just one game in their 6-1, 6-0 win.
Only the Mounties’ first singles had a battle on his hands, as freshman Tylan Ozkuzey went back and forth with Kearny’s Gonzalo Koo, particularly in the second set, which ended with Ozkuzey winning 7-5 to take the match 6-3, 7-5.
Montclair wasn’t even playing all of its starters due to injuries.
“We have some injuries, you know, and our first doubles didn’t play today,” Rabner said, referring to the normal first doubles pairing of juniors Nolan Ogden and Jaden Ruderman. “They haven’t played in the last four or five days because they’ve been really hurt. Hopefully they can come back, and that’ll be a big boost to us at that time.”
With a lot of rain in the forecast for Memorial Day weekend, Rabner told the players to practice when they can, but if they are hurt, to take care of themselves and get ready to give their best game of the season on Tuesday.
Whatever the outcome, given that none of the team’s members was a starter in 2019, every step forward in a tournament is good not just for confidence-building this year, but in gaining experience for the next few years.
“Like I’ve said before, the most important thing is that we’re getting this experience,” Rabner said. “They’re learning and they’re out there and they’re getting good matches against good competition. That can only help us in the long run.”
That doesn’t mean the Mounties are only thinking about the long term.
“For this year, they want to win. I want to win, too,” Rabner said. “You know, if we don’t, I’ll be disappointed, but I’m realistic and I know that next year we’ll be back again, and hopefully everyone will improve.”
Rabner said how the team performs in the final — win or lose — will be a great barometer for how far it’s come this year and how far it could go in 2022.
First things first, though. The Mounties have a chance to repeat 2019, and want to make the most of it.
“The kids are having a good time. They’re bonding really well, and I think it’s been a fun season regardless of the outcome,” Rabner said. “Obviously we hope we can win the state sectionals again and defend our title. This year we’re an underdog and I feel like, yeah, nothing to lose.”