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Junior captain Samantha Velardi finished with a mark of 11-5 while playing the No. 3 singles position for the Branford girls’ tennis team this spring. Velardi, who was selected as the Hornets’ Most Valuable Singles Player, helped the squad qualify for the Class M State Tournament and then win its opening match in the bracket. (File photo by Catherine Avalone/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Junior Amanda Gage earned the Most Improved Singles Player Award while competing out of the No. 2 singles spot for the Branford girls’ tennis squad in the 2019 season. (File photo by Catherine Avalone/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Junior Gianna Benni and the Hornets finished with an overall record of 13-9 and made states for the first time in their fourth season with Head Coach Jim Cole this year. (File photo by Catherine Avalone/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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The Branford girls’ tennis team enjoyed one of its best seasons in recent memory this spring and did so without featuring a single senior on its roster. The Hornets qualified for the Class M State Tournament for the first time with fourth-year Head Coach Jim Cole by going 12-8 during the regular season. When Branford showed up for states, the Hornets made good on their bid by notching a victory against a higher-seeded Maloney team in its opening matchup. When all was said and done, Coach Cole’s squad finished the year with an overall record of 13-9.
“We had fun. It was a great season, a winning season, and so that all worked out great. And nobody is graduating. We didn’t have any seniors,” Cole said. “When you start winning more than you lose, that’s good, because the team starts to feel good. It has its biggest effect on how much the kids enjoy the overall experience. They really worked hard, and I’m glad they got to see a reward for the effort they put in.”
Coach Cole was pleased that so many of players hit the court to work on their games during the offseason. Cole said there’s been an immense level of progression among the athletes on his team during the past few years.
“Most of them started playing during the summer to get ready for the season and will play again this coming summer. So, they’re starting to play year-round, and what I was really happy to see was the difference between the freshman and junior class in two years,” said Cole. “Two years ago, most of them were absolute beginners. But now, they go out and compete, have fun, and enjoy the competition, because they have the skills to do so.”
Branford’s skills were on display when the team recorded a 6-1 road win versus Maloney in the qualifying-round of the Class M State Tournament on May 24. It was a closer contest than the final score indicated as four of the matches came down to third-set tiebreakers. The Hornets, who entered the tourney as the No. 19 seed, claimed victory in all four of those three-set duels on their way to defeating the 14th-seeded Spartans.
“That was our best match of the year. Maloney is a very good team, and they were just about identical to us. So, we were fortunate to win that match, because they had good players,” Coach Cole said. “It was just a really hard-fought battle. It was a big step to go up there and win that one.”
Junior Sara Girardi held down the No. 1 singles position in Branford’s lineup for the second-straight year this spring, finishing the season with two victories. Coach Cole said that Girardi never backed down while going up the top players in the Southern Connecticut Conference on a match-in, match-out basis.
“Sara played an important role by facing the best players from the other teams,” said Cole. “That is a very hard thing to do, but she goes out and plays hard. She did a good job of that.”
Junior Amanda Gage moved up from the doubles lineup to play No. 2 singles for the Hornets. Gage netted a record of 7-7 and was selected as Branford’s Most Improved Singles Player by virtue of her performance.
“At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know how Amanda would be at No. 2 singles, but she’s a really good athlete who can get to the ball on the court from almost anywhere and is calm under pressure,” Coach Cole said. “Amanda causes people to make a lot of errors, and she had a solid record at No. 2. She beat some very good players and won some important matches for us.”
Junior captain Samantha Velardi moved up a rung in the singles lineup and wound up having a stellar season playing the No. 3 spot for Branford. Velardi netted a record of 11-5 and was named the Hornets’ Most Valuable Singles Player. She also received a share of the Coach’s Award for her efforts as a captain.
“Samantha was one of the best No. 3 singles players in the SCC. She came through whenever she had a chance to win. She would get her point and help us win,” Cole said. “Samantha learned how to use topspin as a weapon where girls couldn’t get used to how the ball bounced. She learned how to hit the ball, so that they couldn’t hit it back.”
Junior Gianna Benni was another key cog in Branford’s singles lineup. Benni posted a record of 10-6 at the No. 4 position and was selected as the team’s Junior Player of the Year.
“Like Samantha, Gianna had a lot of matches that she had to win for us to be in contention,” said Cole. “Gianna was often the last match, and we wanted someone who we were really confident in being that last match. She had a really good year.”
Moving to the doubles court, Branford’s No. 1 team of sophomores Alayna Boileau and Shae Lepre turned in an excellent campaign that saw the duo finish with a record of 15-5. After playing No. 2 doubles last year, Boileau and Lepre earned All-SCC honors and also qualified to compete at the State Open Championship to cap off their first season in the top spot. Boileau and Lepre were named the Hornets’ Most Valuable Doubles Players, as well as the team’s Sophomore Players of the Year.
“Shae and Alayna had a great season. They played against the best teams in the conference and lost only five times the whole year. They still have a few years by the time they’re seniors, so they are going to be a force,” said Coach Cole. “Shae and Alayna play an opportunistic baseline style of play that works really well. They attack from the baseline and work well together. They have a special chemistry that allows them to win when they get the chance.”
Branford’s tandem of junior captains Ellie Bartlett and Sarah Berdon moved up one spot to play No. 2 doubles. Bartlett and Berdon went 12-6 on their way to being named the club’s Most Improved Doubles Players. Both athletes also received a share of the Coach’s Award with fellow captain Velardi.
“Sarah and Ellie play a one-up-and-one-back game, where one of them runs from baseline to baseline and the other to and from the net,” Cole said. “It was effective. They developed that style of play and made it work.”
At the No. 3 doubles position, junior Jessica King teamed up with freshman Julianna Torello this year. The new pairing won three matches for Branford.
“They did a good job,” Cole said. “Their level of play increased as the year went on as they learned more about how to play together.”
Freshman Nuala Paudval competed in several varsity matches for the Hornets this season. Paudval recorded three victories at the No. 1 singles position and was named Branford’s Freshman Player of the Year.
“Nuala wasn’t intimidated. Sometimes, she would play someone who had a lot more experience than her, but she wouldn’t get down or upset,” said Cole. “Nuala tried very hard and wound up winning a few matches at No. 1 singles. She will become a factor in the singles lineup.”
With everyone on the roster slated to return for next season, Coach Cole feels confident that Branford can follow up this year’s success by having another memorable campaign in 2020.
“Each year since 2016, the girls have played better and had better results, and I’m thinking that will continue next year. With all of the people coming back, I think we will have a good chance to go to states again and maybe beyond,” Cole said. “So, we’re excited with where we are right now, and we look forward to next year.”
From the Sidelines
The 2019 Branford girls’ tennis team’s roster included junior captains Ellie Bartlett, Sarah Berdon, and Samantha Velardi; fellow juniors Gianna Benni, Claire Bickel, Amanda Gage, Sara Girardi, Jessica King, and Ka Yee Lam; sophomores Hanna Bloomquist, Alayna Boileau, and Shae Lepre; and freshmen Tiffanie Ly, Nuala Paudval, Zadie Schlesinger, Celina Shrestha, Veronica Smith, and Julianna Torello. The Hornets’ team managers were freshmen Brit Hantusch and Reese Inzero.
During the regular season, Branford notched two victories versus Hamden (5-2 and 6-1) and Masuk (5-2 and 5-2), along with one win apiece against Shelton (4-3), Platt Tech (5-2), Law (4-3), East Haven (6-1), Lyman Hall (4-3), Career (6-1), Sacred Heart Academy (5-2), and West Haven (4-3).
The Hornets also took defeats to Law (5-2), Sheehan (6-1), Amity (7-0), Hand (7-0), Lauralton Hall (7-0), Sheehan (5-2), and Guilford (5-2).
In the Class M State Tournament, Branford was the No. 19 seed and started off the draw by claiming a 6-1 victory at No. 14 Maloney in a qualifying-round contest. The Hornets took a 7-0 loss at No. 3 seed Barlow in a first-round matchup.
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