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.”