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Keren Collins

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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.