HHS girls produced solid tennis season

Merriam led balanced effort

By: Rudy Brandl
   Balance and improved play sparked the Hillsborough High girls’ tennis team to a solid season this fall.
   There wasn’t a superstar player that carried the team, but all five positions in the lineup made some contribution toward the team’s success. The Raiders knew they needed everyone to pitch in to reach their goals for the 2002 campaign. All players on the varsity roster enjoyed shining moments, which helped the team achieve some great things.
   Hillsborough was looking to improve upon last year’s 9-9 record and accomplished that by posting a 10-6 mark in 2002. The Raiders wanted to qualify for the state playoffs and took that mission one step further by rolling to a 5-0 victory over Freehold in the first round of the tournament.
   "It was a huge improvement," HHS second-year head coach Sylvia Scozzari said. "I thought we did a great job. We’re elated with our season."
   The Raiders didn’t lose to any slouches this year. All six losses came against state playoff teams, including three to powerhouse Watchung Hills. Bridgewater-Raritan defeated Hillsborough twice and West Morris accounted for the team’s other loss.
   HHS defeated everyone else on the schedule and did so more convincingly on the second trip through the conference schedule. For example, after squeaking past Hunterdon Central by a 3-2 score early in the season, the Raiders rocked their conference rivals by a 5-0 margin in the rematch. So, the girls didn’t merely make progress in the off-season. They kept getting better during the season when team unity also played a role in the success.
   "We had a lot of improvement over that time," Scozzari said. "Part of it was constantly working on the basics. This was a great group of girls that really got along. Even though tennis is an individual sport, it mattered what everyone else did. They all got along and supported each other. When I had to change the lineup, they didn’t complain. They were constantly striving to improve."
   Junior Katie Merriam led the Raiders with a fine season at first singles. Merriam qualified for the individual state singles tournament and finished with a 12-6 overall record facing the top player in every school’s lineup. Scozzari was thrilled to see her top player get the opportunity to play at the state level.
   "She didn’t win, but that was a great experience," Scozzari said. "Katie played great tennis but that girl was just a backboard. Katie hit the ball hard, but no matter what she threw at the kid, she got it back."
   Merriam produced her share of highlights during the season, including a three-set comeback victory over Bridgewater’s Stephanie Iannello. She also defeated a higher-ranked Jessica Coty from Immaculata to advance to the Somerset County semifinals, capping a solid showing by the Raiders in a very competitive field.
   "Once she got her head together and started believing in herself, Katie played great tennis," Scozzari said. "She was probably the most impressive. Her confidence level really started to rise after she beat that Immaculata girl. She came on strong at the end."
   Senior Catherine Kinrade completed her second year at second singles with a 9-5 record. Kinrade, who compiled three varsity letters in the program, won some tough matches during the season. Intelligence and maturity helped Kinrade prevail in some tough spots.
   "She was level-headed and she knew when she was doing something wrong," Scozzari said. "She knew exactly how to make corrections on her own. She was more mature and more serious this year."
   Sophomore Erin Aiello posted a 9-6 record in her first year at third singles. Aiello, a successful doubles player in her freshman season, made a smooth transition to singles. Aiello’s biggest contribution came very early in the season when she erased a one-set deficit to win a match against Hunterdon Central that made the difference in Hillsborough’s 3-2 team triumph. That victory helped the Raiders qualify for the state tournament.
   "That was a huge win," Scozzari recalled. "Erin’s got great strokes and she continues to strive to be her best. If she keeps working as hard as she’s working now, she’s going to be a great player."
   The HHS doubles teams didn’t make as many headlines, but they certainly weren’t anonymous. Both tandems compiled winning records and produced one major highlight during the season.
   Senior Jen Wagner and junior Carolyn Chen finished with a 9-7 record but no victory was more critical than the three-set triumph over Voorhees. That victory also produced the decisive team point in a victory that propelled the Raiders into the states. Wagner and Chen dropped the first set 4-6 but fought back to take two tough sets 7-5, 6-3.
   "They definitely won that match for us," Scozzari said. "That put us in the state tournament."
   Senior Sara Lavell and freshman Christel Arribe compiled a 9-6 record that might sound rather ordinary, but it included a memorable three-set victory in a tie-breaker over Watchung Hills. The Raiders hadn’t beaten the Warriors at any position during Scozzari’s brief tenure as head coach, so this one was sweet.
   "They’re the only Hillsborough team to beat Watchung in the last couple of years," said Scozzari, who enjoyed watching Lavell and Arribe battle for a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7-3) victory.
   Although the Raiders lost that match, the second doubles victory put an appropriate exclamation point on the team’s character and balance during the season. The Raiders relied on all seven players and all five positions to carry the load.
   "There wasn’t anyone who didn’t give everything they had," Scozzari said. "They did whatever they could to win the match. It wasn’t always the same person. It was spread across the board."