Cherry Hill East captures elusive sectional championship

After three straight years of heartbreak, the Cougars seniors headed to graduation with a win over the team that knocked them out in the previous two seasons, keeping a perfect record intact, too

Cherry Hill East’s players — Arnav Gupta, Kevin Hu, Jeffrey Xi, Adam Yu, Brett Schuster, Nathan Belitsky, and Max Sobel — pose with their new trophy along with their coaches. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

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.

Senior Adam Yu embraces freshman Brett Schuster while fellow senior Kevin Hu (far right) celebrates when Cherry Hill East clinched the South Jersey Group 4 sectional championship. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“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.”

Cherry Hill East players douse coach Greg deWolf with a Gatorade jug bath. The sectional championship was also deWolf’s 100th career coaching win. (JACOB PASTERNACK, Cherry Hill East Tennis)

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.”

Adam Yu and Kevin Hu, who were on the Cougars teams that were runners-up in the last three sectional championship matches, celebrate victory with their coach Greg deWolf, who earned his 100th coaching win. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Brett Schuster prepares to volley a shot cross court. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Cherry Hill East first doubles team Arnav Gupta and Max Sobel celebrate a point. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Adam Yu watches a backhand shot. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Kevin Hu follows through on a forehand shot. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Cherry Hill East players celebrate the match-clinching point. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Cherry Hill East athletic director Mike Beirao presents the South Jersey Group 4 trophy to the victorious Cougars. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Cherry Hill East’s seniors celebrates the South Jersey Group 4 championship. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)