MOORESTOWN >> The Lenape High School girls tennis team has seen its season come to an end the same way it did in 2019 - at the hands of perennial-power Cherry Hill East.
The second-seeded Indians (10-5) suffered a 4-1 loss to the top-seeded Cougars (11-1) in the NJSIAA Southwest A Sectional Championship Nov. 2 on the indoor courts at the Moorestown Field Club.
Last year, Cherry Hill East swept visiting Lenape, 5-0, in the NJSIAA South Group 4 sectional final.
Cherry Hill East jumped out to a 2-0 lead following wins at two of the three singles matches.
Junior Elliana Tonghini defeated Lenape freshman Isabella Cao, 6-1, 6-0, at second singles to open the sectional championship match. Cherry Hill East sophomore Julia Chan then downed junior Amanda Geraci, 6-2, 6-0, at third singles.
Lenape clawed to within 2-1 after sophomore Rhea Sethi beat Cherry Hill East freshman Sophia Liu, 6-1, 6-2, at first singles.
Any thoughts of Lenape evening the match at 2-2 were denied after the first of two doubles matches were finished.
Cherry Hill East’s second doubles team of Nancy Shi and junior Jessica Wang handled Lenape junior Olivia Helmlinger and sophomore Kaitlyn King, 6-3, 6-2.
In the final match of the day, Cherry Hill East senior Sophia Pavlenko and junior Vivian Zhao defeated Lenape juniors Isabella Gigliotti and Bernadette Carney, 6-4, 6-1.
The Cougars reeled off 11 straight victories after a 3-2 loss at Shawnee in the season opener Oct. 1.
“After losing our top five seniors to graduation last year, the junior-varsity players really stepped it up,” said Cherry Hill East coach Mary Jewett, who has been coaching the Cougars for 22 years. “We have an inspiring group of young athletes who have lived up to their team motto ... HUMBLE YET INTENSE!”
Lenape didn’t hang its heads low despite the loss on Monday.
“Our expectation for the match was that it was going to be competitive and it was,” said Lenape coach John Carnevale, who has only beaten Cherry Hill East twice – in a 2012 regular-season match and the 2014 sectional finals – during his 15 years at the Medford school. “Our team played very well despite the loss. I don't think playing indoors was an advantage for either team. Most players from both teams train indoors.”
Lenape’s road to the sectional championship started with a 5-0 shutout of No. 7 seed Kingsway in the quarterfinals Oct. 27. Then on Halloween, the Indians got by visiting No. 3 Eastern, 3-2, on a clinching second-doubles victory by King and Helmlinger.
“I truly believed that we would make it back to the sectional finals this year,” admitted Carnevale. “We made it last season and I think we have an even stronger team this season.”
Carnevale couldn’t single out any one particular ‘leader’ of the team, saying: “They were all leaders in their own way.”
Carnevale said Bernadette Carney was the team’s most improved player this fall.
“Bernadette was in the middle of the junior-varsity lineup last season and this year she was No. 4 on our singles ladder and first doubles for varsity,” he said.
The Indians won three of their first four matches to start the season and seven of their final nine matches. The sectional loss was Lenape’s second to Cherry Hill East this season. They also fell to the Cougars, 4-1, on the road Oct. 20.
Lenape has reached the sectional finals five times since 2013. The 2014 victory was the Indians’ second title with the other coming in 1991 or 1992, according to Carnevale.
“I know I speak for (assistants) Coach (Jody) Stansbury and Coach (Stacey) Rowland when I say how proud we are of this team and how happy we are to have had a season, despite the circumstances,” said Carnevale. “Making it to the sectional final two seasons in a row is not easy and our girls worked very hard in the off-season and during the season to make that happen.”
Final season records for Lenape’s players are as follows: Sethi (13-2, first singles), Cao (9-6, second singles), Geraci (8-7, third singles), Gigliotti and Carney (8-5, first doubles) and Helmlinger and King (7-3, second doubles).
When asked about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted this season, Carnevale said:
“The biggest challenge this fall with COVID was not having much of a pre-season,” he said. “Our (Lenape Regional High School) district started the fall pre-season on Sept. 21, so we had one week to establish a lineup, doubles teams, etc.”