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Denise Lai

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By Bill Landon

Ward Melville’s girls tennis team’s unbeaten, 14-0, regular season record is unmatched by any of the 52 varsity squads in Suffolk County. Add to that four playoff victories, the last one leading to a Suffolk County championship title, and the Patriots are in rarefied air.

Head coach Erick Sussin said the remarkable winning streak is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.

“No other team in Suffolk County has gone undefeated, in all leagues — all the others have at least one loss,” he said. “Now every team plays different schedules and sometimes you’re comparing apples and oranges, but we did have a tough schedule and not to drop a match.”

The Patriots tasted defeat for the first time when they fell to Port Washington, 5-2, in a rain delayed Long Island championship finale at Half Hollow Hills West Nov. 1.

Ward Melville junior Denise Lai had her hands full at first singles, but ultimately prevailed against seventh-grader Thea Rabman 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. Section XI had a surprise in store for the three-year varsity player after the match. Lai, who was been name All-State the last two seasons, learned she had captured the sportsmanship award for the season, as voted by Suffolk County coaches.

“There’s no doubt about, its humbling,” Lai said, overwhelmed. “I’m just happy I’m acknowledged for how nice I am.”

Sussin was quick to point out what his junior standout has meant to the team.

“Denise is not just our captain, she’s the team leader at the highest position,” the coach said. “She’s been top notch all year and she plays well under pressure. She represents our team at first singles.”

Ward Melville junior Anna Ma, a three-year varsity player who usually competes in first doubles, found herself competing in fourth singles and won her match 7-5, 6-3.

Sussin said his strategy for the match was to get to four wins as soon as possible. To try to do this, he continued to move some of his star doubles players to singles spots, like Keren Collins, who ultimately won the county championship for her team.

The senior, who usually pairs with Ma, competed in third singles throughout the postseason.

“We know that in our [matchups] we can get four points in other ways,” Sussin said. “They prefer doubles, and in doubles their hands get better, their volleys get better, and you can use that in singles play.”

Collins said she had confidence in her team throughout the playoffs no matter where her teammates were slotted.

“It didn’t matter who we were playing, everyone in every position had the ability to get it done —we all did our part we just kept pushing through,” Collins said. “We had confidence going out there each time, knowing we could do it. And every time we won, we’d have a quick 10-second celebration and move on to the next match. We set our goals and we conquered them.”

Julia Hu attributed her team’s remarkable season and its rise to Long Island level to the depth of Ward Melville’s roster.

“Reaching this game says so much about how deeply talented our team is from our first singles to our third doubles,” Hu said. “Our girls are so disciplined with their training throughout the year, and with their effort and support of the entire team — we all contributed to that 18-0 record.”

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Keren Collins is surrounded by her teammates following her three-set win to propel Ward Melville to a county team title. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

The Patriots had been in this position before, but this time, all eyes were on senior Keren Collins.

Keren Collins returns the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

The Ward Melville girls tennis team’s chance at redeeming last season’s finals loss to Commack for the Suffolk County team title came down to the third singles match, and Collins came from behind 4-6, 6-0, 6-4 to claim the crown for the No. 1 Patriots with a 4-3 edging of No. 2 Half Hollow Hills East Oct. 23.

“At first, the pressure was nonexistent, but when I found out [I was in the last match of the day] and up by three or four games, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to use that advantage and get this, right here,’” Collins said. “Last year we made it to the finals and lost to Commack, but this year we were determined to make it happen and I wasn’t going to let the chance slip away.”

While Collins was competing on the William Floyd court, third doubles pair Ellie Berger and Sam Sloan were playing alongside her. The Patriots duo dropped the second set 1-6 after winning a commanding first 6-1, and eked out a 6-4 win in the third over Lauren Kornfeld and Emily Me taxas.

Denise Lai volleys. Photo by Bill Landon

After the win and even with the mounting pressure, Collins kept her pace and her power stroke strong as she wore down her opponent.

“I was able to hit down the middle and I kept going to every possible corner that I could,” she said. “But [Melissa Chen] was extremely athletic — she was able to get to almost everything, she was like a ball machine, so I had to tire her out as much as possible.”

Ward Melville head coach Erick Sussin said his three-time All-County player was a game-changer.

“Keren was able to change the dynamic of the game. What she lacks in mobility on the court she makes up with power,” he said. “With power — putting the slice in every so often — she mixed it up so that pace went from really fast to really slow, and that caught her opponent off=guard.”

Earlier in the match, Anna Ma won her fourth singles match 6-3, 6-1 and Denise Lai did her part in first singles, defeating Alexis Huber in convincing fashion 6-0, 6-2. But the two-time All-State player admitted she was nervous about whether her team could pull out a victory.

“I had some doubts,” Lai said. “Last year was kind of sad, we lost big time, but I’m so happy that we finally won.”

Julia Hu serves the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

Sussin said that changing wind conditions presented a problem, especially during Collins match, but said she seemed to take the gusts of wind in stride.

“It was a factor early on, especially in that second set, and she used the wind when she needed to —when the wind was at her back her slice was dropping in,” Sussin said. “And when the wind was at her face she was able to hit through it with all her pace.”

Julia Hu, a three-time All-County player, said she did not doubt Collins in the nail-biting contest, even through standing still in silence with her teammates.

“I knew she could pull it out — she has that amazing mental strength,” Hu said. “She’s been playing tennis for so long and she knows she has to get the job done, and won’t let her emotions interfere with what she has to do.”

Ward Melville now turns its attention to winning the Long Island title. The undefeated, 18-0 Patriots will play Port Washington at Half Hollow Hills West Oct. 25 at 3 p.m.

The Ward Melville girls tennis team took the Suffolk County team title with a 4-3 win over Half Hollow Hills East Oct. 24. Photo by Bill Landon

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Ward Meville's Anna Ma sends the ball back. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

Ward Melville head coach Erick Sussin doesn’t hesitate to mix up his tennis lineup. In fact, it’s been a recipe for success this season. The Sept. 25 matchup against Bayport-Blue Point proved no different, as the Patriots blanked their opponent 7-0 to remain undefeated atop the League V leaderboard.

Ward Melville’s Jade Eggleston serves. Photo by Bill Landon

“We lack the depth we had a year ago, and we’ve changed up our No. 3 and No. 4 singles several times this year,” the head coach said. “But we have strong four points [in No. 1 and No. 2 doubles and singles], and all you need is four points to win. That has allowed us to win all of these matches.”

Jade Eggelston’s No. 1 singles match was a breeze, sweeping 6-1, 6-0. The sophomore is typically a No. 2 singles starter, but her head coach said she’s one of the most consistent players, even with the pressure of the team being 8-0.

“You want to keep it up — you don’t want to let your school down,” Eggelston said. “I had to keep my rhythm and maintain consistency, but I thought my serve was pretty dependable today.”

Typically the No. 1 singles starter, junior Denise Lai won her match first doubles match with classmate Anna Ma, 6-0, 6-1.

“Starting in first doubles was a little different for me today,” Lai said. “[But] I look at it as just another match and try to play my best.”

Sussin said Ma hits with incredible pace on her groundstrokes and has a tough serve to break, which makes her a force to be reckoned with. She said she just continues to take each match one set at a time.

Ward Melville’s Natalie Ferretti volleys in her first varsity start. Photo by Bill Landon

“It adds pressure because you’re expected to win, but it also makes you play better,” Ma said, adding that she thought her forehand and serve helped her win the match. “We’ll have to be more consistent and keep our heads in the game — stay mentally strong.”

Senior Keren Collins, normally at first doubles, partnered with Isabella Anderes at second doubles and shut out their challengers 6-0, 6-0.

Collins, a returning All-County player since 2015, agreed with her teammates that being undefeated helps her focus and gives her more of a desire to give it her all.

“It makes you play better,” she said. “It gives you confidence that we can do this. We’ve done it before, so we can do it again.”

Dara Berman won her third singles matchup 6-2, 6-3 and Preeti Kota blanked her opponent 6-0, 6-0 in fourth singles, while Samantha Sloan and Natalia Ferretti’s results were much closer, edging their opponents 7-5, 6-4. Ferretti secured her first win in her first varsity start.

Ward Melville is back in action on their home court Sept. 27. The Patriots will host Sachem at 4 p.m.

The No. 2 Ward Melville girls' tennis team finishes in second place in the Suffolk County standings. Photo by Bill Landon

By Bill Landon

The conditions at William Floyd High School were less than ideal as the No. 1 and No. 2 girls’ tennis teams battled through wind and cold during the Section XI championship Oct. 25. Ward Melville had a more difficult time overcoming the conditions, and fell to the top-seeded team that avenged a finale loss last season, 6-1.

Shannon Sartain sends the ball back over the net. Photo by Bill Landon
Shannon Sartain sends the ball back over the net. Photo by Bill Landon

The Patriots lost to the Cougars 4-3 on Sept. 15 — the team’s only loss during the regular season, which was a nonleague match. Ward Melville head coach Erick Sussin said the difference this time around, was that Commack was at full strength.

“The first time we met them they didn’t have their No. 1 singles player, so they beat us 4-3 and that wasn’t even their best team,” Sussin said. “We knew that today would be a lot harder. We had to win four out of seven points, so I knew we had to win second and third doubles, and most likely third and fourth singles.”

Commack’s first and second singles are the rock of the Cougars’ lineup.

Emily Tannenbaum won Commack’s first match, 6-0, 6-1 over Ward Melville freshman Jade Eddleston at second singles. Gabi Glickstein defeated Jillian Shulder 6-7, 6-1, 6-1 at third singles.

“She has extremely consistent groundstrokes,” Sussin said of Eggleston. “She has a gritty determination to win on the court.”

Despite her loss, Shulder, a co-captain and All-League player who Sussin said has consistent, powerful groundstrokes, left it all on the court.

“I played to the best of my ability,” she said. “Even though I lost today — and I won against them last time — I was playing a girl of a higher spot. The wind definitely affects your play because you try to get the ball to do one thing, and it does another.”

Denise Lai continues the volley. Photo by Bill Landon
Denise Lai continues the volley. Photo by Bill Landon

Sussin said he was pleased with his team’s performance, and added he was proud of the level they achieved, despite the conditions being less than ideal.

“All the girls had to hit through the wind, the serves were tough and lobs were a little hard to deal with,” he said. “The doubles strategy was to try to win the points at the net and not worry about ground strokes, to end the point early because the wind’s going to take it.”

In first doubles, Ward Melville senior Morgan Voulo and sophomore Anna Ma, who the coach said has a tremendous forehand and killer overhands, lost to Commack’s Emma Matz, the younger cousin of New York Mets pitcher Steven Matz, and Julia Kinalis, 6-2, 6-2.

Ward Melville junior Julia Hu and sophomore Dara Berman lost 6-4, 6-1 over Commack’s Emma Mangels and Andrianna Kaimis in second doubles, and Ward Melville seniors Shannon Sartain and Julia Hoffmann fell 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 at third doubles to Commack’s Christine Kong and Victoria Pensiero.

“It was the best that I’ve played and it was hard once I knew that the team had lost,” Sartain said. “But I kept playing and I played hard all the way through.”

Jillian Shulder serves the ball. Photo by Bill Landon
Jillian Shulder serves the ball. Photo by Bill Landon

Sartain, an All-Division player, is the leader and heart and soul of the Patriots’ team, according to her head coach.

Voulo, another All-Division co-captain agreed with her teammates that the conditions made it harder for her to perform up to her expectations.

“The wind and how cold it was it made it hard to get through,” she said. “I think I did the best I could. I was pleased with my serve and my forehand, because normally that lets me down, but I think I brought that today.”

Ward Melville sophomore Denise Lai fell 6-3, 6-1 in first singles to seal the victory for Commack (15-1).

“She’s an unbelievable talent,” Sussin said of the sophomore despite her loss. “She has an excellent tennis IQ, all-around game and powerful topspin shots as well as perfect slices. She can crush the ball from the baseline or win on a soft drop shot with ease. Lai knows how to exploit her opponent’s weaknesses and is our quiet leader that all the girls look up to.”

Junior Keren Collins was the only player to win for Ward Melville. She topped her Commack opponent 6-3, 6-2 in fourth singles.

Ward Melville finished the season 16-2 overall, and went undefeated in League V.

“I was pleased with everybody’s performance today,” Sussin said. “When you reach this level everyone’s playing well and conditions were unfavorable for everybody. Commack played some good tennis. They are by far the best team in the county and when you play like they did today, they deserved it.”