As they prepared to pose for a photo a year earlier, 32 people paraded onto the center court of Cherry Hill High School East’s tennis facility.
Technically, it only takes seven players to field a varsity tennis team. But the Cougars strength is in their numbers.
Even though East graduated 70 percent of its starting roster from the 2019 South Jersey Group 4 championship team, its ability to compete at a high level in junior varsity, coupled with the next-girl-up mentality, put the team in pretty good shape for 2020.
The culmination of the work the Cougars put forth in the last year arrived in physical form on Nov. 3 at the Moorestown Tennis Club, when Cherry Hill Schools District Director of Athletics Mike Beirao presented the 2020 girls tennis team with a championship trophy on the final day of the season.
Cherry Hill East, green with varsity experience five weeks earlier, posted a 4-1 win over Lenape in the Southwest Region Group A sectional championship match.
“Not bad for a rebuilding year,” longtime coach Mary Jewett said as her girls hoisted the trophy.
The Cougars, who have won a sectional championship in 19 of the last 22 years under Jewett, returned just two players from the 2019 sectional championship team: senior Sofia Pavlenko and junior Elliana Tonghini.
After a 3-2 season-opening loss to Shawnee, Cherry Hill East finished its season on an 11-match winning streak. In those 11 matches, the Cougars lost only three games.
“I always thought of people on varsity as legends and people that were just really good,” said Vivian Zhou. “Now that I’m a part of it, it feels so surreal.”
Zhou was one of the five new players on the varsity roster in 2020.
“Me and two of my friends, we trained really hard over the summer,” she said. “We improved more over the last year than we ever did in the last few years.”
Teamed with Pavlenko, Zhou clinched Monday’s sectional championship with a 6-4, 6-1 win at first doubles. The two friends Zhou was referring to were fellow first-year varsity players Julia Chan and Jessica Wang, who collected important wins, too: Chan won a 6-2, 6-0 match at second singles, while Wang teamed with senior Nancy Shi for a 6-3, 6-2 win at second doubles.
East’s only loss came at first singles, where promising freshman Sophia Liu lost to Lenape’s Rhea Sethi. At second singles, Tonghini dropped just one game in winning her match in straight sets.
“I’ve known these girls for a while,” Tonghini said of the influx of first-year varsity players in 2020. “We’ve done clinics together at the racquet club (for years). I knew that they could step up. I knew they were focused. They all wanted that (varsity) spot, and to be a part of a team that’s won 19 of the last 22 years. They all wanted to be a part of that, and so they really focused during the offseason and they stepped up.
“I saw it the first day. I was like, ‘We got this. We’ve got this in the bag.’”
Vivian Zhao serving for the Sectional Title victory for East Tennis!!
— East Athletics (@CHEastAthletics) November 2, 2020
“East has a reputation for being good,” added Pavlenko. “And I remember last year everyone on JV was super close, so I feel like everyone knew it and it was implied that we would (do well), but not in a cocky way.”
And that’s part of East’s two-decade-long run of success: humble confidence.
The Cougars who work their way up through the program understand the expectations at the varsity level. But with the work they’ve put in, they’re both physically and mentally prepared.
“Cherry Hill East keeps producing children that are humble yet intense — that get it done,” Jewett said of the key to such long-term success.
“They’re humble and intense,” she continued. “And if you’re not humble, you don’t work hard. We’ve had very humble kids over the years and yet they’re really intense. And the more intense they play, the harder they hit the ball with the deep top spin, and go for the balls at the net, and that’s more fun and it’s going to produce winners. And that’s what they do. They’re really good at it.”
Jewett and her coaching staff deserve credit, too, for adding hardware to the school’s trophy case year after year despite the constant influx of new players in the varsity lineup.
“When NJSIAA said our season would be shortened, (I knew) our lineup was going to be iffy,” Tonghini said of the matches lost that would normally help mold and toughen the team throughout a full season.
“But (Coach Jewett) did really well with challenge matches, making sure everyone was where they needed to be and with the partners they needed to be with,” she added. “Because obviously in doubles, chemistry is super important.”
Although one news publication predicted it would be a rebuilding year at East, Jewett knew something they didn’t: The newcomers were varsity-ready. It was just a matter of moving them up.
“We had to find five new people; we had to get down and focus,” Tonghini said. “(Coach Jewett) told us the whole year, ‘Yeah, it’s a rebuilding year, but you guys are going to win it.’ She had us that way all season: ‘You guys got this.’ She was very positive.”
The positive vibes were contagious and produced championship results.
“They saw (the rebuilding comment) and said, ‘No, it’s not going to be a rebuilding year; we’re built,’” Jewett said. “And they came in and proved it.”