Not even Mother Nature’s typical mid-autumn mood swings or the continuation of a pandemic could stop Haddonfield Memorial High School’s girls tennis squad from its appointed rounds — celebrating another championship — as it closed out the year on home court with a victory over Seneca on Nov. 3 to claim the NJSIAA Southwest Group C Regional crown.
“I’m really proud of the team that we all pushed through, noted senior Alexandra McDonnell, one of a trio of captains, who closed out her first year of varsity play as a winner.
“COVID was the obstacle for us,” she said. “Having the season and getting this far was a really big accomplishment. It was quite a way to go, though, (winning a title) on our own courts.”
The Bulldawgs’ meeting with the Golden Eagles was originally scheduled for Oct. 30, but tropical remnants of Hurricane Zeta made the playing surface too slick. Four days later, Jeff Holman’s team showed no signs of a letdown, displaying the focus and determination required to play at a high level in a compressed season rife with uncertainty.
“Usually, in the regular season, coach tries to get us to as many matches as possible, so we would play between 20 and 30 matches, and this year we were only playing 10 and 15, so we all really tried to play our hardest each time out,” noted senior and captain Lily Hanna.
The Golden Eagles, who failed to win a match against Haddonfield one year ago in the South Jersey Group 2 championship, were blanked once more. Hanna, Kate Morris and Sammy Sirover each breezed through their single matches in straight sets, while the twosomes of Lucinda Andrews and McDonnell, along with Ava Grookett and Tina Tian, also needed only the minimum two sets to vanquish their opponents.
“In the huddle, I would say play your best, because we don’t know if we’re gonna have another match. We were never really sure,” Hanna added.
That attitude paid big dividends.
The sectional title was the 19th in a row for Haddonfield’s prestigious program. Since 1976, HMHS has won a remarkable 40 South Jersey sectional championships in 45 seasons.
Preparation for this season was unlike any other: In normal years, Holman has the program take on a heavy schedule. In addition to the team’s Colonial Conference foes, its players would compete in every in-season tournament available; take on every other top South Jersey tennis team; and find matchups with out-of-area, in-state competition.
But COVID-19 disrupted best-laid plans, leaving Holman and his charges waiting and wondering. The coach credits his team for taking precautions seriously, so as to not place a potential season in jeopardy.
“Of course, I was a little apprehensive when the season started, we had voluntary practice in August,” he explained. ‘Once we started, things went to normal pretty quickly thanks to the health of our players. Nobody had become ill, and that’s always a question mark. Other teams had to postpone their season, and one very good team, Moorestown Friends, was not able to compete.”
Holman added that the truncated schedule, with only two in-season tournaments and 13 matches, ended up providing a steep learning curve. Knowing there was a smaller margin for error helped the girls bear down and focus more on playing well within their individual competitions.
“We had a larger percentage of matches out of conference against bigger and stronger schools,” he said. “Every week, we had big matches, and that wasn’t the case in other, longer seasons.
“The girls handled everything very well.”
Although Hanna, McDonald and Morris all said they were content to simply compete this season and go out victorious, Holman was sanguine about the fact that there was no further chance to prove Haddonfield’s worth with a bigger prize at stake.
“Once we won a South Jersey tournament, we’d go on to play other teams in the state and measure ourselves against that competition,” he stated. “That’s something we can’t do this year. It’s always a goal to get to that level to find out what we can do.”
A small cadre of varsity participants keeps the program on top each year, but Holman maintains the goal is something far more lasting.
“We actually have 43 girls in the program, and the focus is not just on winning championships, it’s to try and have all girls have a great experience,” he admitted.
“I think they were able to do that. Credit to all my coaches that spend a lot of hours out here to give the girls the attention and time to make their experience worthwhile.”