Southern Seniors Come Through as Boys Tennis Team Scores First-Ever Win in State Tournament

By DAVID BIGGY | May 15, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy Southern’s Dan Sullivan makes a backhanded return during the first doubles team’s come-from-behind victory in the Rams’ 3-2 win over Egg Harbor Township in the first round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament on May 9.

Stafford Township — Down 4-1 in the third set of a 1-1 match, Southern seniors Dan Sullivan and Jake Henderson had only two options. They either could call it a day and simply play the next two points as if they didn’t really matter or they could refuse to fold and somehow find a way to get back in the match.

That’s when coach Evan Brosniak pulled the duo aside for a chat by the fence.

“Coach told us not to think much about it, to take it a point at a time and just play our game,” Henderson said after he and his first doubles partner helped edge Egg Harbor Township, 3-2, in the first round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV tournament on May 9. “Surprisingly, we did exactly that and won four straight points to get within one of taking the match.”

After losing the first set to EHT tandem Luis Geda and James Cheney, Sullivan and Henderson bounced back with a second-set victory. But they did so the hard way, blowing a 4-1 lead and being forced to come from behind after the Eagles’ crew went up 5-4. The Rams won the next two points to force a third set with a 7-5 victory.

To start the third set, unforced errors and a few solid winners from Geda and Cheney put Sullivan and Henderson into a hole, as they went down by three points and their backs were up against the proverbial wall.

Following the brief meeting with their coach, Sullivan utilized a great first serve and delivered several backhand winners while Henderson made excellent use of a powerful forehand to tie the third set, 4-4. Behind a pair of misplayed first serves to close out the next point, Sullivan held serve to make it 5-4.

But the EHT duo rebounded to take the next point and make it 5-5. With Henderson serving, the Rams held again to go up 6-5, prompting Sullivan to glance over at his Southern teammates between points and staking the claim, “We’re not going to a tiebreaker.” Despite his confidence, exactly that occurred after he swatted a forehand long at 30-40 to tie the contest.

“We looked at each other and just said, ‘Relax. Don’t worry about it. Don’t think about. Just play.’ We looked over at the second singles court and saw it was 4-0 and knew it was on us,” Henderson said. “We just had to get it done. It was seven points, and we just had to finish it.”

After Sullivan hammered a pair of back-to-back aces to give the Rams a 4-1 advantage in the tiebreaker, they came up with a huge point when Henderson managed to get a forehand on a ball deep to the right corner of the court and Sullivan put it away on the next volley.

“That point was huge,” Henderson said. “To get that ball where it was played and then win the point, it totally demoralized them and we could smell victory at that point. I think our experience of being on the team for the past few years helped in that situation.”

Sullivan and Henderson won two of the next three points to take the tiebreaker, 7-2. At the same time, second-singles player sophomore Logan Van Liew had already been in the process of working toward victory and it was simply a matter of closing it out to give the Rams the team win. But that took what seemed like an eternity.

“Yeah, that was a really long match,” said Van Liew, after he took nearly two hours, 20 minutes to win a 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 contest over Josh Guimapang. “The first set, we both went out a bit aggressive and then we backed off and just played back-and-forth for a lot of points. In the second set, I felt like I had taken control, and he started trying do to too much and started making mistakes, which is exactly what I wanted.”

Following a first set that was excruciatingly long – during the last third of it, Southern teammate Chris Marinelli, whose second doubles match already had concluded, sat in the bleachers and timed many of the points just for fun – with most points carrying on for minutes at a time as the two opponents continually played deep to the middle of the court, Van Liew ultimately won the set by way of a similarly long tiebreaker.

The longevity of the first set seemed to take a toll on Guimapang, who started short-arming serves and hitting balls into the net as Van Liew grabbed a commanding 4-0 lead. From there, Van Liew patiently played through the next few points.

“I looked back at the first doubles court a few times,” he said. “I thought I had my match in hand, so I was just hoping Dan and Jake would get theirs. This was a big accomplishment for us, and I was glad to be a part of it.”

With senior Joe Dunwoody delivering a 6-2, 6-4 win over Sam Liang at third singles, the big accomplishment part was something Brosniak didn’t reveal until afterward. The Rams had won their first-ever state tournament contest. He broke that bit of news to the squad in a post-match huddle, prompting plenty of hooting and hollering from the players.

“We always talk about coming up big in matches, but I didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag and put any extra pressure on them,” Brosniak said. “I wanted to see if they would pull through. We play in a very tough section. We don’t have any lightweights because South Jersey has a lot of good teams. Even when you’re facing an 11th seed, like Egg Harbor, they’re as good as we are, so this wasn’t an easy matchup. But the guys stayed positive and they didn’t let anything get in their heads.”

As the sixth seed, the Rams advanced to the quarterfinals to meet Shore Conference Class A South rival Toms River North, scheduled for Tuesday, May 14. Southern (12-3) hasn’t beaten the Mariners in years and lost, 5-0 and 3-2, in this spring’s regular-season matches against them.

The day after beating Egg Harbor, the Rams cruised past Toms River South, 5-0, as first singles players Eloin Dunwoody led the charge with a 6-2, 6-3 victory, and the second-doubles crew of Chris Marinelli and Matt Terhune contributed with a 6-2, 6-1 victory. Henderson and Sullivan also won in straight sets, as did Van Liew and Joe Dunwoody.

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