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The Hand boys’ tennis team had a perfect 2018 season by finishing at 20-0 overall, while capturing both the SCC Tournament and Class L state titles. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Senior tri-captain Rob Israel (pictured) teamed up with junior Noah Gulla to win Class L state doubles crown for the undefeated Hand boys’ tennis team this spring. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Justin Pace earned All-SCC and All-State honors for the Tigers after finishing with a record of 25-1 on the year. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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After posting runner-up finishes at both the SCC Tournament and State Championship last year, the Hand boys’ tennis team entered the 2018 season with a chip on its shoulder and was hungry to reach the top. In the end, the Tigers used a steady determination to take the title at both postseason competitions, while achieving perfection in the process. Hand notched an overall record of 20-0 and finished the year with the SCC and Class L state crowns in its grasp.
Head Coach Dawn Fagerquist and the Tigers steamrolled through their competition in the regular season by posting a record of 17-0 that included 14 wins via a 7-0 sweep. In the SCC Tournament, top-seeded Hand defeated Shelton (6-1) and Fairfield Prep (7-0) to reach the championship match, where the Tigers blanked Amity 7-0 to win their fourth conference title and put a bow on their 20-0 record.
Hand went on to compete in Class L State Championship and finished in first place ahead of runner-up Darien to earn the Tigers’ fifth state title in program history and their first since 2014. Hand’s tandem of senior captain Rob Israel and junior Noah Gulla led the way by winning the doubles tournament at the State Championship.
Coach Fagerquist said that while the Tigers scaled things back a bit to make sure they were playing in the moment, their desire to capture the SCC and state crowns never wavered for a second this spring.
“It was hard last year losing in the SCC final to Fairfield Prep, so this year had a revenge-type feel to it at the start,” said Fagerquist. “They stayed focused, though, and kept their eye on the prize. I told them to stay focused, in the moment, and take things day to day. They also used their potential like they should have.”
The Tigers were guided by three senior captains throughout their championship chase. Hand’s captains were No. 1 singles player Justin Pace, who finished with a record of 25-1 on the year; along with No. 1 doubles player Rob Israel and No. 2 doubles player Alex Bueno. Featuring a third captain for the first time this season, Coach Fagerquist delegated a specific role to each member of her leadership trio, and she felt that strategy worked out quite nicely for the Tigers.
“We’ve never had tri-captains, and so I designated certain things to each of them,” Fagerquist said. “Rob always got certain things ready for the team. Justin was involved with the team during matches, and Alex acted as a sounding board for the boys. Each of them stepped up to their roles, and it all worked out well.”
Hand’s dominance was certainly on display throughout the regular season. However, the Tigers really kicked things into high gear by shutting out two powerhouse opponents in the SCC Tournament, after which they carried their winning vibes into the state meet.
“We beat a majority of our opponents 7-0 this year, which shows the huge determination with these guys. We beat Prep and Amity 7-0 in the SCC semis and final. We’d never accomplished that before in SCCs,” said Coach Fagerquist. “Then after winning all those matches, we go into states and win a title and a doubles title. It was awesome to see them stick together. The guys had something in mind and played as a team. Every match is a different match, but they adjusted to every one. I’m still pinching myself in believing that we did all this.”
Rob Israel, Pace, and freshman Josh Israel made the All-SCC Team for the Tigers, while Gulla was named the SCC Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Josh Israel finished with a record of 24-1, and Gulla was 25-0 between singles and doubles play this year. By making the semifinals of their respective Class L draws, Hand’s tandems of Josh Israel and Pace, plus Gulla and Rob Israel, both made the All-State Team and qualified for the State Open Championship, where Gulla and Rob Israel advanced to the semifinal round of the doubles tourney. Pace, Josh Israel, and Gulla were each named to the New Haven Register’s All-Area Team this year.
Junior No. 4 singles player Max Thompson was named the Tigers’ Most Improved Player after turning in a 23-2 record for the season. Rob Israel and freshman Reilly Vejar went 24-1 at No. 1 doubles, the No. 2 duo of Bueno and sophomore Darby Rogers finished with a record of 22-3, while junior Nick Chieppo and sophomore James Watkins went 14-0 for Hand.
Now, the Tigers’ quest to defend both their SCC and state titles begins. Hand is saying good-bye to a tremendous trio of senior leaders, and so the Tigers will have to display the same level of dedication that they did while climbing the mountain this year if want to claim those crowns again.
“Next year will be different after losing three solid seniors. Hopefully, everyone will play a lot in the offseason. We have some good freshmen coming in, as well,” said Coach Fagerquist. “We will have to put the puzzle together and start a new year all over again. We would like to repeat, but it will take some hard work.”
From the Sidelines
In the regular season, Hand defeated Fairfield Prep (6-1 and 4-3), Amity (7-0 twice), Cheshire (7-0 twice), Foran (7-0), Xavier (7-0), Branford (7-0), North Haven (7-0), Notre Dame-West Haven (6-1), South Windsor (7-0), Hamden (7-0), Shelton (7-0), East Haven (7-0), Guilford (7-0), and West Haven (7-0).
Hand had 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 Class L title outright in 2014.
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