From the moment the Cougars took the court, it felt like their fortune was going to change.
The mid-May sun blanketed the tennis courts at Cherry Hill High School East with a warmth that felt more like summer, a changeup from the sectional championships in the last two seasons, when rain forced the action indoors and miles away from their school. Less than two hours later, a crowd of a couple dozen players, students, parents and coaches gathered along the fence outside Court 5 and you could feel that advantage, along with the palpable tension in the match being played out in front of them.
The Cougars top seniors, Adam Yu and Kevin Hu, who were competing in their fourth straight sectional championship, won their matches in straight sets. The first doubles team of Arnav Gupta and Max Sobel were in an extended 10-minute break before heading to a third set.
On Court 5 was the second doubles team of junior Jeffrey Xi and freshman Nathan Belitsky. They had won the first set 6-4, but the second set was in a tie break and the first six points of that tie break were evenly split between the two Cougars and their Lenape opponents.
“Very stressful,” Hu said afterward.
“It sucks, it sucks to be on the sidelines,” Yu said, “but I knew our guys were going to pull it through.”
When they did come through, winning the tiebreak 7-4, the celebration began. After losing in the sectional finals in three consecutive years, Cherry Hill East captured the 2019 South Jersey Group 4 championship on Monday, 3.5 to 1.5 over Lenape. It was the third straight sectional title meeting of the two schools, which decided to retire the first doubles match after splitting the first two sets since the overall match outcome had been decided.
“It’s crazy, it’s kind of surreal,” said Hu, who won his second singles match 6-1, 6-3. “Both Adam and I have been to sectional finals in all four years and for the past three years we came up a little bit short, so to get over that hump, it feels amazing. There aren’t really words to describe it.”
The undefeated Cougars (15-0) advanced to the Group team state playoffs, where they’ll take on the state’s top team, Montgomery, on Wednesday at Mercer County Park.
“It means everything,” said Yu, a 6-1, 6-0 winner in his first singles match, as he helped cut and pass around a celebratory cake for the Cougars championship.
“The first three years didn’t go to plan, but the fact that we were able to just keep coming back and working at it, it’s incredible,” Yu continued. “And to be 15-0 as of today? It’s a dream come true to be honest. I still can’t believe we won to be honest. It was getting a little tight at the end with that last match.”
In that last match, Xi admitted to getting “shivers down (his) back” as the crowd erupted with each point and the momentum seemed to shift with each point. But the Cougars second doubles team kept their cool and helped their seniors head to graduation with the title that had eluded them in the previous three springs.
“They were great examples throughout the season and it feels great to be able to get them a championship,” Belitsky said.
“The four seniors and one junior, this was their goal from Day One, ever since the heartbreaking loss from a year ago,” said East coach Greg deWolf. “They were able to reset. Even the guys on that team last year that lost were here cheering them on. It’s been tantalizingly close, and now we’re able to finally get over that step, even if it takes a tiebreak.”
The sectional championship was a milestone win for deWolf: his 100th career coaching victory.
“I had no clue what my record was, I don’t do it for that, I do it for those guys (seniors), this is what they’re going to remember, and to get this on their resume, and honestly they’ve been that good,” he said. “It’s been a turn of events here and there. We feel we’re one of the better teams in South Jersey and now we get to prove it at the state level.”