Hillsborough boys coming of age on tennis court

Team surpasses 2001 win total en route to state playoff berth

By: Rudy Brandl
   With the season about halfway gone, the Hillsborough High boys’ tennis team has already accomplished more than last year.
   The Raiders clinched a berth in the Central Jersey Group 4 playoffs with last week’s victories over Hunterdon Central and Phillipsburg. Those wins elevated the team’s record to 7-2, a significant improvement over last season’s 6-10 ledger.
   Hillsborough has swept Central, Phillipsburg and Franklin in addition to defeating Watchung Hills. The victories over Central and Watchung were particularly sweet for the Raiders, who couldn’t beat those schools in 2001.
   "We’re beating teams this year that we didn’t beat last year," senior first doubles player Mike Howard said. "A lot of people have stepped up. Kids were hitting over the winter and improving their games. That’s giving us a better chance as a team."
   Howard and doubles partner P.J. Zitel have emerged as one of the most productive tandems in the area. The Howard-Zitel combo has posted a 7-2 record, duplicating the team’s result in every match. The Raiders haven’t been able to defeat Bridgewater-Raritan, but neither has anyone else.
   The Panthers will be among the heavyweights at this weekend’s Somerset County Tournament, a three-day affair slated to begin Saturday afternoon at The Pingry School in Martinsville. The top six seeds will gain byes into Sunday’s quarterfinals, which start at noon. The quarterfinals and semifinals will be contested Sunday at Pingry, with Monday night’s finals being held under the lights at Green Knoll in Bridgewater.
   HHS head coach Larry Johnson was hoping to get all five of his positions ranked in the top six at last night’s seeding meeting. County advancement won’t be easy with players from Bridgewater, unbeaten defending champ Rutgers Prep and perennial powers Pingry and Montgomery in the mix. The Raiders were scheduled to battle Pingry and Montgomery in regular season matches this week.
   "I’m looking forward to it," Johnson said. "I’d like to come in the top five (in the county team standings). I don’t think we can challenge Bridgewater and Rutgers Prep, but it should be really interesting."
   Prep and B-R are loaded with USTA ranked players, but the Raiders will be primed to give them a fight. The HHS players have come through in some tight spots this year, surviving tie-breakers and three-set matches to win for themselves and the team.
   "Success gives you an air of confidence," Johnson said. "If you’re on a successful team, you step up and challenge that adversity. Last year, if you lost it was a blow to your pride. This year, if you lose, it’s a blow to you and to your team’s pride. These guys don’t want to lose."
   Howard and Zitel pulled out a three-set thriller in the team’s 4-1 triumph at Central last week. After dropping the first set 6-4, the Raider senior duo came back to take the next two by 7-5 and 6-4 scores.
   "It was our mental game," Howard said. "We stayed in the match all the way and we kept our focus. We were making a lot of unforced errors and we weren’t really into the match at the beginning. Then reality set in."
   Second singles player Mohan Anand posted a 6-2, 6-4 win over Lin Zhao and sophomore Dan Chou topped Tim Eng by the same score at third singles. The second doubles team of Kevin Cooper and Steve Ubry dumped Jason Keegan and Mike Becker 6-0, 7-6 (7-4).
   Hillsborough’s only setback came at first singles, where freshman phenom Thomas Kinrade lost a grueling three-set match to Derek Schmeichel. Kinrade had beaten Schmeichel in three sets the week before but fell short in the rematch in a 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (4-7), 6-4 marathon. It will be interesting to see which player gets the higher seed in the SCT.
   Kinrade and the Raiders blanked Phillipsburg, with all five positions winning in straight sets. Anand, Chou and the Howard-Zitel team were dominant, surrendering a total of just five games.
   The Raiders aren’t expecting any easy ones this week but they’re looking forward to the county tournament. They’d love the opportunity to play some Monday night tennis.
   "We should be seeded and our goal is to make it to the finals," Howard said. "We have the talent to stick with anyone. So does everyone on our team."
   Win or lose, the HHS players have supported each other all season. Players who have completed their matches always cheer on their teammates. This camaraderie has played a major role in the team’s success.
   "It’s definitely a total turnaround," Howard said. "This year, we all have one goal."
   "There are guys here that experienced a lack of success last year and they know what it’s like to have a losing season and a frustrating season," Johnson said. "Now, they’re playing good ball. They’re getting along as a team and things are flowing well."
   The Raiders will learn a lot more about their level of progress against the county’s best competition this week.