November 4, 2020

Although PHS Girls’ Tennis Edged In Sectional Semis, Young Squad Enjoyed Special Fall, Has Bright Future

NET GAIN: Princeton High girls’ tennis player Lucia Marckioni makes a volley in action last Wednesday in the Central West A (Group 4) sectional quarterfinals. Juniors Marckioni and Sophia Kim posted a straight-set win at first doubles to help top-seeded PHS edge eighth-seeded Watchung Hills 3-2. A day later,Marckioni and Kim earned another win in their flight but it wasn’t enough as the Tigers fell 3-2 to fourth-seeded Hunterdon Central in the sectional semis. PHS finished the fall with a 12-1 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Losing four seniors from a squad that went 14-1 in 2019 and with COVID-19 concerns putting the fall season in doubt, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the Princeton High girls’ tennis team this year.

But with Princeton school officials giving the go-ahead to the 2020 campaign and freshmen Shaila Iyer and Eva Lependorf emerging as stars at first and second singles, respectively, PHS answered those questions, producing an 11-0 regular season record and winning the Colonial Valley Conference title.

“Just being able to get out on the court this season was really nice for everyone,” said PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert.

“We were really impressed with how our regular season went. We didn’t lose a single flight during the regular season when people played in their correct positions.”

While PHS didn’t get to play on its home court for the Central West A (Group 4) sectional quarterfinals as damp courts moved the match to the Mercer County Park indoor tennis complex, the top-seeded Tigers edged eighth-seeded Watchung Hills 3-2.

“The win over Watchung Hills was very exciting; I am proud of the way the middle of the lineup was able to be solid for us,” said Hibbert, who got wins in the match from Eva Lependorf at second singles, junior Bella Lependorf at third singles, and the pair of juniors Lucia Marckioni and Sophia Kim at first doubles.

“I told the girls going into this match that they are going to be strong and to be prepared for that, don’t look at the record.”

A day later, the Tigers returned to MCP and faced a strong foe in the sectional semifinals, falling 3-2 to fourth-seeded Hunterdon Central.

“We knew Hunterdon Central was going to be very strong,” said Hibbert, noting that the Red Devils had just one loss on the season and had defeated second-seeded Montgomery just before the start of the sectional.

“They have three really quality singles players. They have had a very strong season as well. The girls fought as hard as they could and they played a good match.”

The first doubles team of Marckioni and Kim provided a highlight against Hunterdon Central, posting another straight-set triumph, defeating Sereia Marsh and Ava DeLauro 6-2, 6-0.

“They are undefeated on the season which follows since they were county champs last year,” said Hibbert of Marckioni and Kim.

“They had that really close match with Hightstown where they were able to come back and pull out that tiebreak win which was great for them. They have definitely been a high spot for us this season.”

At second doubles, the pair of sophomore Monica Li and senior Annie Wei pulled out a close one, edging Andrea Arpastean and Brooke Reich 6-2, 2-6, 6-1.

“Second doubles came through in that match too,” said Hibbert. “It has been back and forth this year, we have had two teams competing for second doubles. They had a two out of three set challenge match right before going into states to really make sure that we were putting forward the best team. I knew that we were going to have to rely on our depth in these matches, every match counts for one point.”

Lependorf competed hard at second singles against Hunterdon Central, dropping the first set 6-2 to Elle Catanzarite and then rallying to win the second set 6-1 to even the match.

“In the first set, their girl, Elle, was just pounding the ball; she really hit a very hard ball,” said Hibbert.

“She was overpowering Eva and Eva was trying to out hit her. I just talked to her and said against this player, this is not the way to play. You are going to have to be a little more patient, you are going to have to just be able to withstand the attack and then use your counterpunching skills. Eva has great movement around the court and plays amazing defense. She was able to change up her strategy and was able to come back and play an amazing second set. She really took control of the match.”

The match and a spot in the sectional final came down to the third set and Catanzarite regrouped to win 6-3 as the Red Devils ended the Tigers’ season.

“It was neck and neck; it was point here, a shot there,” said Hibbert, reflecting on the decisive set.

“Elle was really hitting her shots. If she had just been a teeny bit off, I think Eva would have been able to pull it off. Sometimes it is who is having a good day at that time. Had it been the final, maybe it would have been outside. She hits a super-fast ball; we had to play inside and those courts are super-fast. There are different conditions outside so it could have been a very different situation.”

While Hibbert was disappointed by the narrow loss to Hunterdon Central, she was very happy with the squad’s 12-1 campaign.

“Overall, it was still a very good season,” said Hibbert. “I am really proud of the girls, they worked really hard. We had a nice
regular season, we were division champs. They do enjoy being a part of a team. Obviously it was a different year this year, not being able to high five. They usually have team dinners and team sleepovers. We are happy we made it through the season.”

In the wake of PHS having made it through 2020 with aplomb, Hibbert sees a bright future for her squad.

“We are really excited with the potential for next year. We look forward to having most of them back next year,” said Hibbert, who is only losing one senior, Wei, from her starting lineup.

“We are hoping things return to a more normal state of the world and we won’t have to be wearing masks, sanitizing the scorecards, changing and marking tennis balls.”