PHS Boys' Tennis Derailed in State Final Four Needs Big Commitment to Net More Success
By Bill Alden
Matt Ullmann's game was clicking at the outset last Friday at the state Group III tennis Final Four.
Playing at third singles, the Princeton High freshman topped Millburn's Jon Kepniss 6-4 in the first set of the semifinal match.
In taking that set, Ullmann's groundstrokes were as crisp as the sunny, clear weather that greeted the competitors at Mercer County Park.
The wiry Ullmann, though, wilted in the heat of the day and the competition as he dropped the second set of the match.
With Milburn winning three other flights before the third set of Ullmann and Kepniss started the third set, the match was ultimately declared a split decision and each team was awarded one-half point.
PHS first singles star Chris Hoeland also split the first two sets of his match to earn one-half point as the Little Tigers absorbed straight-set defeats at second singles and in both doubles matches.
As a result, PHS ended its season with a 4-1 loss to Milburn, the third-ranked team in the state and the eventual Group III champions.
In reflecting on his first trip to the state Final Four, Ullmann didn't hide his frustration at not closing the deal.
"I started off well and then I just crashed," said Ullmann. "I was moving him around and I was putting the short balls away. In the second set, I was missing everything. I don't know what happened."
Despite the sour ending, Ullmann acknowledged that a lot of good things happened for him in his debut season at PHS.
"I pretty much acclimated myself to high school tennis because I have been playing all season," explained Ullmann.
"I've gotten used to playing everyday. I started hitting my forehand much better and my serve has also improved."
While disappointed by the result, PHS first-year head coach Paul Lynch saw the loss to Milburn as a potential building block for the program.
"I knew we could be competitive with anybody," said Lynch, whose team finished with a 16-7 record in his debut season at the helm.
"We've played top teams in the state like this already. We have a lot of young players and hopefully this experience will be good for them in the future."
Lynch felt his club's experience in battling such tough competition kept his players from being intimidated by Milburn.
"I think they were relaxed," said Lynch, whose first doubles duo of Dave Zheng and Yoshihiro Tachibana put up a big fight in falling 6-2, 7-5 to Mark Berg and Ken Flax.
"They knew what they needed to do to play. We just ran into a team that was better today. There is a reason why Milburn is No. 3 in the state. We gave them a run for their money in three flights."
Lynch was proud that PHS was once again in the money as the program made its fourth straight appearance in the Group III semis.
"I thought it was a successful year for us to be sectional champions," asserted Lynch. "We're going to lose a lot on Chris but I think we should be fine for the future."
In particular, Lynch is depending on freshmen Ullmann and Zheng to carry the PHS mantle. "Matt has a lot of good tennis ahead of him in the future," said Lynch. "He really stepped up his game. David Zheng is another freshman who has come on really strong. He'll be in the singles lineup next year. We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores who want to step up to that next level."
Although the graduation of Hoeland leaves a big void, Lynch believes that his senior star's influence will be felt next year.
"Chris really set the tone," said Lynch of his senior star who won the Mercer County Tournament (MCT) title at first singles this season after winning one MCT title at second singles and two at third singles in his first three years at PHS.
"He's not your typical moody tennis player. He wants to have fun but he's serious about his tennis. He's very relaxed and he's willing to work with the younger guys at practice. I think the lessons they have learned from him and the time they were able to practice with him will help them move up to the next level."
If the younger players are to follow in Hoeland's footsteps, they will have to take their tennis seriously.
"I think we will be a very balanced team next year from one through seven," said Lynch. "In order for us to become one of those top 20 teams in the state, we're going to have to work a lot. The guys have to commit themselves to get back here next year; it's going to be a matter of how much they work in the off-season."
Ullmann, for his part, hopes this year's sectional title is a sign that PHS learns from tough competition.
"I think it's pretty good because nobody expected us to make it this far this year," maintained Ullmann. "We did better than we were supposed to do but I would've liked to see us go further. We played tough teams in the beginning. Our schedule got easier toward the end and when we had tough matches in the CVC, we played better."