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06/02/2018 12:00 AM

Hand Boys’ Tennis Claims Coveted Class L State Title

The Hand boys’ tennis team captured its first state title since 2014 after coming in first at the Class L State Championship. The Tigers also finished the season with a perfect record of 20-0 after winning the SCC Tournament title in the previous week. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source

Since the beginning of the 2018 season, the Hand boys’ tennis team has been determined to improve upon a pair of runner-up finishes from last year’s postseason. The Tigers took care of their first item of business by winning the SCC Tournament title. Now, they can now cross that second item off their list after claiming a state title with a first-place finish at the Class L State Championship.

Hand posted second-place showings at the Class L State Championship in 2016 and 2017 and also lost in last year’s SCC Tournament final. This year, the Tigers finished at 17-0 for the regular season and then won three matches to recapture the SCC crown and post an overall mark of 20-0.

The Tigers then opened play in the Class L State Championship last week—and they wouldn’t settle for another silver medal. Hand scored 22 points to defeat runner-up Darien for the Class L title, resulting in the fifth state championship in program history and its first since 2014. The Tigers’ tandem of senior tri-captain Rob Israel and junior Noah Gulla led the way by winning the doubles tournament at the State Championship, which took place from May 26-31.

“Winning as a team means everything to me. This was a goal four years in the making. Coming out of the second day, we felt we could solidify the goal of winning it, and Noah and I clinched it in the semis. Our top 10 came up in the clutch and got the points they were supposed to get,” said Israel. “We were down match point in the finals, I missed my first serve, and thought I was going to double fault the championship. I hit a spin serve out wide, won the point, and that was when I knew we couldn’t lose it. The team title means more. The doubles title is just a small piece of the puzzle.”

Israel and Gulla were seeded 4th and defeated Newington’s Lukas Klin and Shihao Zhai, 6-0, 6-0, in the second round following first-round bye. The duo then prevailed over the No. 13 seed team of Chris Chatwood and Tyler Cramer of Darien, 6-4, 7-5, in the third round. In the quarters, Israel and Gulla faced No. 5 seed, Parker Pacekonis and Ronnak Saxena of South Windsor, and prevailed 6-4, 6-4. They then made their way to the final by defeating the 9th-seeded team of Jack McCarthy and Alessandro Sulpizi of New Canaan by the score of 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4 in the semis. Israel and Gulla matched up against Guilford’s 6th-seeded team of Gianni Esposito and Sam Inchalik for the title and won a three-set marathon by the score of 6-1, 0-6, 7-6 (8-6).

“It was only smart to put Rob and Noah together. They play well together, and you have to have strategy at this stage of the season. They didn’t have an easy road. They went to three sets with Guilford and New Canaan, but they brought home the big gold trophy,” Hand Head Coach Dawn Fagerquist said. “This title is very rewarding for the team, and it’s nice to see them get the recognition they deserve. They worked hard as a team, and it was nice to see them come together.”

On the singles side, freshman Josh Israel was seeded 5th for the draw in the Class L State Championship. He defeated Farmington’s Mani Kandon (6-0, 6-0) in the first round, Clayton Adams of Wilton (6-0, 6-0) in the second round, Nick Derby from Darien (6-0, 6-2) for the third round, and then No. 4 seed, Jason Lee of New Canaan, by a 6-4, 6-1 score in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Israel took a 6-2, 6-2 loss against top-seeded Andrew Forchetti of Notre Dame-West Haven.

Senior tri-captain Justin Pace was seeded 3rd in singles and earned a 6-0, 6-0 win over Krish Vijay of Masuk in the first round. Pace then defeated Darien’s Ian Wise (6-1, 6-0) in the second round, 14th-seeded Ryan Dagan of Pomperaug (6-0, 6-0) in the third round, and Walker Mulligan of Guilford (6-1, 6-2) in the quarterfinals. Facing No. 2 seed Bobby Neuner of Darien in the semis, Pace lost a three-set match by the score of 6-3, 2-6, 0-6.

“Going into high school, there is one goal that everyone strives to achieve, and that’s a state title. All the pieces fell in place and we had a lot of determined guys. Fortunately, everything went our way, and we were able to capture that elusive state title,” said Pace. “Last year, I made it to the semis. It would’ve been nice to make the finals, but overall, I was happy with my performance.”

Also in singles, junior Max Thompson defeated Henry Willis of E.O. Smith, 6-1, 6-0, in the first round, before losing to No. 8 seed, Brett Gloria of Amity, by a 6-2, 6-2 final in the second round. Freshman Reilly Vejar defeated Wilton’s Conrad Emerson, 7-5, 6-4, in the first round and then lost 6-1, 6-1 against Neuner in the following round.

Elsewhere in doubles, junior Nick Chieppo and sophomore James Watkins were seeded 15th and netted a 6-0, 6-0 sweep against Paul Kjornrattanawanich and Soriya Tep from Bristol Central in the first round. They then lost Alex de Castro and Sergei Doroshin of Darien in the second round by a 7-6 (7-5), 7-5 score.

The 10th-seeded team of senior tri-captain Alex Bueno and sophomore Darby Rogers defeated John Henry Brehmer and Usman Rahman of Pomperaug, 6-0, 6-1, and then posted a 3-6, 6-2, 11-9 win against Wilton’s Henry Greene and Charles Li in a second-round matchup. They later took a 6-4, 6-4 loss against the 7th-seeded team of Sam Slobin and Oliver Kleinberg of Fairfield Ludlowe.

All singles semifinalists and doubles finalists made the All-State Team and also qualified for the State Open tournaments that run from Sunday, June 3 until Tuesday, June 5. The Open will conclude a campaign that has been full of historic victories and tight-knit bonds for the undefeated Tigers.

“This team was closer this year, and they’ve all played extra tournaments, so they have that edge in match play,” Coach Fagerquist said. “All season long, they just wanted to prove something this year and that they were as good as the FCIAC teams.”

From the Sidelines

In the SCC Tournament, top-seeded Hand defeated No. 8 Shelton 6-1 in the quarterfinals, No. 4 Fairfield Prep 7-0 for the semis, and No. 2 Amity seed Amity by a 7-0 score in the final.

Hand finished as the runner-up to New Canaan at the Class L State Championship in both 2016 and 2017.

The Tigers won Class M state titles in 1980 and 1981. They were also co-champions of Class L in 2013 and won the title outright in 2014.

Senior tri-captain Rob Israel and junior Noah Gulla claimed the Class L doubles crown to help the Hand boys’ tennis squad capture the Class L state title last week. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source
Noah Gulla (pictured) and doubles partner Rob Israel earned a 6-1, 0-6, 7-6 (8-6) victory against Guilford’s Giannie Esposito and Sam Inchalik to win the doubles tournament at the Class L State Championship. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source
Senior captain Robert Israel capped his career with Tigers’ boys’ tennis in style by winning a state doubles title with teammate Noah Gulla, while also helping Hand win its fifth state championship in program history. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source