SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J. -- The Union Catholic boys tennis team, under first-year coach Rick LaBelle, continued its best season in several years with a dramatic victory over Cranford at the Hillside Avenue Courts in Cranford.
With the match tied at 2-2, UC junior John Mintel came through with a clutch third set tiebreaker victory over James Nicnadowicz at second singles to give the Vikings a heart-pounding 3-2 win to even UC's record on the season at 7-7.
After splitting the first two sets, Mintel broke an 8-8 deadlock in the tiebreaker with two straight points to win, 10-8.
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The victory by UC avenged a 4-1 loss to Cranford earlier this season.
UC also received victories from both its doubles teams. Ben Abood and Jeremy Bonnell were straight set winners at first doubles for UC, and Scott Kernen and Matt D'Aleo won in straight sets at second doubles.
With two more matches left in its campaign, the Vikings are having its best season in over a decade.
"I think one of our greatest keys to success is the effort put into practices, and into our matches,'' said Coach LaBelle. "Our practices have really focused on a progressive acquisition of new skills and tactics, while improving the fundamental skills they already had. Focusing on increasing athleticism has also helped them with their endurance. Communication, especially among my doubles has been a huge key to their success, and overall for the team. This has been such an amazing season to coach, especially as I'm stepping into the role as head coach for the first time. Having such a trainable group of athletes is always great, but it's especially encouraging when you see the growth that comes from their approach to our practices and matches, as well as the advice, and coaching they receive. We've been very blessed this season to see the fruits of their hard fought effort pay off. There's been a couple of matches where our performance has surprised our opponents, and their improvement has earned praise on their behalf from those coaches as well. I, however, am not surprised. They have put everything they had into our matches, never holding back, never getting bogged down from defeats, and rising to seize the position they now hold.''
Coach LaBelle said the season has been very gratifying to see how much his players have improved since the start of the season.
"It's been quite rewarding to see how far they've improved, and not just the seven athletes who regularly compete, but the rest of the athletes on the team as well,'' said LaBelle. "It's very amazing to be in the position that we're in now: a possibility of a winning record, which was not on anyone's radar at the start. As I said before, the effort that they have put into this season is the fruit that we are able to see now."
With just two seniors in the squad, Coach LaBelle is very excited about the future of the program.
"I'm very excited about the future, mainly due to the fact I have such a young team,'' said Coach LaBelle. "I think that other schools are going to take us more seriously next year, and as these guys continue to practice their skills out of the regular season, they're only going to come back stronger, and better equipped next year. We also have a number of incoming freshmen interested in next year, some of whom are very talented, which should bring good support, and talent to next year's team as well.''
What hasCoach LaBelle enjoyed the most in his first season as coach?
"The thing that I've enjoyed most is to see my athletes achieve what I knew they could, namely the fruit of always doing your best, and giving nothing less, and the joy, and sense of accomplishment that it has brought them,'' said Coach LaBelle. "It's been a real blast, and I can't wait to see what next year holds.''