It was a little over a year ago when Sarah Fitzgerald, during her first year as Shawnee High School’s girls tennis coach, was taking stock of the banners in the school’s gym.
And it was a little jarring. The Renegades girls tennis team, entering the 2019 season, hadn’t won a sectional championship since 1979.
“I don’t think any other team at Shawnee has gone that long without winning a sectional title,” Fitzgerald said, relaying that message to her team. “This is the goal.”
Shawnee took an important step forward last season, winning 17 of its 20 matches, and got a little more motivation when it dropped a 4-1 defeat to Moorestown in the South Jersey Group 3 championship match. The Renegades earned some payback last week, but couldn’t help but look forward to realizing their goal this week.
Following a 4-1 victory over Mooretown in their regular season finale on Wednesday, the Renegades completed a near-perfect regular season, earned the top seed in the Southwest Regional Championship bracket, and were battle tested for a likely rematch with Moorestown in the regional title match this coming Friday.
“They’ve had a target on their back and they’ve played awesome,” Fitzgerald said of her girls. “Everyone wants to beat us, but they’ve risen to the challenge.”
During a fall season when state championships won’t be contested as schedules are truncated due to COVID-19 — and with just about every major singles tournament shelved this year, too — Shawnee has the opportunity to take an already successful 2020 campaign and add a history-making team championship to that banner in the gym.
“Having no singles, this is it,” said star sophomore first singles player Samantha Tepes. “This is our time to show how good we are this year.”
“It would mean a lot for us,” added Ella Purfield, one of two seniors on the team along with her first doubles partner Mary Kate Clapperton.
“It’s definitely really exciting,” Purfield continued. “We’d never beaten any of these teams in the past, so to be able to do it our senior year is really exciting. To go almost undefeated for the majority of the season is really great. I’m really grateful for it.”
Shawnee entered the postseason with an 11-1 record. The only blemish was a loss to private school Princeton Day last week.
But that loss was sandwiched between wins over Moorestown and fellow South Jersey power Haddonfield. The Renegades also beat perennial South Jersey champion Cherry Hill East, avenging two of their three losses from last year, to begin the 2020 season, too.
“I think it’s just the team, we were all clicking this year,” Tepes said of the breakout season. “We all have been having a good time and we all get along. We all wanted to win.”
A rising player in the USTA ranks, Tepes spent a bulk of the summer trading nervous texts with her high school teammates. Like most high school athletes, she was fearful that the fall season, like the spring before it, could be lost to COVID.
But when the good news came, Tepes and her teammates made the most of it. And while individual tournaments are fun, there is not replacing the camaraderie of winning as a team.
“It’s a whole support system, basically,” Tepes said of high school tennis. “Being with the team and having your whole team supporting you when you’re the last one on the court.”
Freshman second singles player Natasha Sharnoff was in that exact situation on Wednesday with the match against Moorestown on the line. With Tepes, Clapperton and Purfield off the courts following wins at first singles and first doubles, and Maya Doshi falling to her Moorestown foe at third singles, the Renegades needed one more win to clinch a team victory. Sharnoff and the second doubles team of juniors Michaela Pierznik and Kalena Gatesman were in the third sets of their matches.
“I hadn’t played (Moorestown) before so I didn’t really know what was at stake as much as the others,” Sharnoff said with a laugh afterward. “I like challenges and I definitely like my comebacks.”
The freshman rallied back after losing the first set, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, to clinch Shawnee’s latest win.
“That was the best I’ve seen her play,” Fitzgerald said. “That was amazing.”
Pierznik and Gatesman also won, keeping their own special season going.
“They’re currently undefeated, they haven’t lost a match yet,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s been great to see them improve since last year; they’ve been awesome.”
Win or lose this week in a bid to collect their first championship in 41 years, the same can be said for Shawnee’s rise as a prominent girls tennis program in South Jersey over the last two seasons.