BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - In the North Jersey section 2, group 2 semifinals, the second-seeded Governor Livingston Highlanders boys tennis team defeated the third-seed Madison Dodgers, 4-1. With their win on Friday, the Highlanders will face Fort Lee, the section’s top seed, on Monday for the sectional title.
Friday’s win was an extension of what has been a magical (and rather surprising) ride for the Highlanders, who improved to 14-5 on the season.
“Sitting at 14-5, I can honestly say that we’ve exceeded our season goals,” first year head coach Mike Smookler said. “Our goal was to have a winning record and we’re definitely going to finish with a winning record this year.”
“But as for today’s win, I’m very proud of our guys for how they performed. They were very focused from start to finish. Even Madison’s coach realized and made a statement that our team was stronger than we were the last time we played them.”
The Highlanders also defeated the Dodgers, 4-1, in an early season meeting between the two squads. The only difference was that the Highlanders weren’t at full strength due to injuries. Smookler said the early season meeting could’ve easily gone the other way but commended several of his guys for stepping up to the challenge of playing unfamiliar positions.
“Coming into Friday’s match, we knew they would want to beat us bad because we got them earlier in the year,” Smookler said.
The Highlanders were expecting to get Madison’s best shot on Friday so they knew they’d have to dish out their own best shots as well, which is what they did.
After junior Harrison Joseph lost a tough set in the #1 singles match, the Highlanders responded with four consecutive set victories.
Senior Alex Woo, who didn’t play in the last meeting between the two teams, got things rolling with a strong 6-4,6-3 victory.
Fellow senior Alec Polumbo, the team’s third singles player, followed up Woo’s performance with a dominant performance of his own. Polumbo won his set 6-2,6-1.
At the first doubles, Smookler said he finally had the combination he wanted in junior Carl Heer and freshman David Schwartzmann. The duo rewarded Smookler for his faith with a 6-0,6-1 victory that Smookler called “a strong and dominant performance”.
And at the second doubles, seniors Ethan Fong and Andrew Hong capped Governor Livingston’s strong day with a 6-4,6-0 victory.
“If the guys play how they did today, we have a very good shot at winning at Fort Lee on Monday,” Smookler said. “It’s going to be a very competitive match.”
Had the Highlanders been at full strength the entire season, perhaps they would be the top seed. With injuries to players such as Woo, Smookler was forced to shuffle his lineup several times this season in order to weather the storm.
Smookler and his team weathered the storm as well as any coach could ask.
“Our success this year has been a total team effort,” Smookler said. “I was asked a little while back ago if I could name one MVP of our team who would it be, and I couldn’t answer that question because every single one of our guys has stepped up.”
“I couldn’t be more proud of our boys in how they’ve had each other’s backs.”
The team’s camaraderie and ability to handle adversity goes back to the preseason when Smookler showed them videos on mental toughness. The point of letting go of a loss and moving on to the next match was hammered home and the Highlanders have taken those lessons and run with them.
The Highlanders countered adversity by posting thrilling victories over teams such as Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Oratory Prep in addition to a fourth place finish in the Union County Tournament.
The team recently clinched the Union County Conference-Mountain Division title and is now one win away from a sectional title.
And now that Smookler has his lineup back at full strength, it’s no stretch to say his team will capture that title.