When you’re an eighth-grader considering how close you are to joining one of the elite high school programs in the area – Eastern field hockey, Moorestown girls lacrosse, Gloucester Catholic baseball – you’re aware of the expectations before you walk into the hallways for the first time or show up on the field.
Depending on your personality, it can be crippling. The best athletes have strong mindsets, of course. But not everyone is there at age 14.
Brett Schuster and Nathan Belitsky seem to be there. In August, the two incoming Cherry Hill East High School freshmen tracked down the top two players on the Cougars tennis team at a tournament in Moorestown.
More than seven months before the season began, the two freshmen made a point to form a bond with seniors Adam Yu and Kevin Hu and have followed their example ever since.
“We have a very seasoned team with some youth coming up,” said Cherry Hill East coach Greg deWolf, in his 10th season after replacing the legendary Ralph Ipri. “And what’s nice is I’ve seen the freshmen realizing the expectations and following the lead of the upperclassmen. That’s where they’ll learn. Our (seniors) lead by example and through mentorship, and I’ve seen it. They’ll listen to them 100 times more than they’ll listen to (the coaches).”
With the perfect chemistry of talent and team-building, the Cougars should be in position to realize their goals and uphold the program’s prestige, too. Cherry Hill East has nine state championships in school history – but none since 1995. It’s beginning to feel like the boys tennis team is due to add something new to the school’s trophy case.
“It is, it is and we’ve been very close,” deWolf said. “It’s one of those – we were just there. We’ve lost three straight sectional championships and it’s tough, but it’s also a learning process every year. … The last two were close.”
The top seed in South Jersey Group 4 in each of the last two seasons, Cherry Hill East was dealt a few different flavors of tough luck. In consecutive years the weather prevented them from taking advantage of a perk of being the top seed as they were moved off their home courts and away from their fans to an indoor facility. Last spring, they lost to Lenape 3-2 in the sectional championship, and one of those three losses came when a Cougars senior doubles player broke his ankle during the match.
“This is why I say as a coach you still have to go out there and play, you can’t assume wins or losses,” deWolf said. “Weird stuff happens.”
“For me, the next few days, the next few weeks we all felt the loss,” Hu said. “But I think we felt that in the offseason, but we used that as motivation to practice harder and train harder for this year.”
Hu, Yu, the incoming freshmen, and the rest of East’s veteran team took that mentality into the 2018-19 school year. Even with the girls tennis season in session, they found time to set up their own team practices back in September so that when April came around, they would be physically and mentally prepared for the always-challenging Olympic Conference regular season and Group 4 postseason.
“We all know what we want to do this year,” said Yu, the runner-up in last year’s South Jersey Coaches Tournament and likely favorite to win the title this year. “Even the freshmen who have come in, they’re well aware of what we want to do this year. So it’s very exciting for us.”