SHREWSBURY — Capping a dream season, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School boys’ tennis team won the Division 3 state championship Thursday for the first time in history. The boys defeated Nashoba 4-1 on outdoor courts at the St. John’s High School tennis complex, finishing their season with a perfect 23-0 record.
Head coach Ned Fennessy, in his 22nd year with the team, was at a near loss for words after the trophy and medals presentations, his ear-to-ear grin saying all that was needed. He did take a break from smiling, however, to simply say he was “euphoric” about the results.
The Vineyarders won in convincing fashion, clinching the title by winning the first three of five matches in 50 minutes. They won the first four matches in straight sets before losing the final singles match well after they had secured the title.
Junior co-captain Justice Yennie captured the first win of the day, defeating Nashoba’s Christian Fletcher in straight sets, 6-2, 6-0. Yennie is undefeated through two seasons at third singles, and finished his match in just under half an hour.
That was followed by a 6-1, 6-1 doubles win by Jackson McBride and Natty Schneider. The duo then watched as teammates Justin Smith and Ryan Sawyer swept opponents Josh Bricknell and Ben von Stetton 6-0, 6-0 to clinch the state title. McBride leaned toward Schneider as they watched the match point of Ryan Sawyer and Justin Smith’s second doubles match, excitement in his voice as he said simply “This is it, this is it.”
Then came applause and fist bumps from their teammates — both past and current; several tennis alums made the trip up to Shrewsbury — on the sidelines.
“The feeling hasn’t really sunk in that we’re state champs yet,” Sawyer said afterward.
Under clear blue skies, the Vineyard jumped out to a strong start, with each player and doubles duo taking a 1-0 lead in their respective first sets. “When I looked up and I saw that everybody had won the first set,” Yennie said after the match, “Then I knew we were going to do well. That was the best part.”
In the final two matches following the clinching win, junior co-captain Kent Leonard at first singles defeated Pra Vennapusa 6-3, 6-4, while sophomore Patrick McCarthy at second singles, lost to Pra’s twin brother Pri Vennapusa 7-5, 6-4.
Leonard said he was “pretty psyched” about the afternoon. “You know when you win states, you had to play some pretty good teams to get there,” he said.
Nashoba, the winners of the Central division, turned out to be more than pretty good this year. They entered the postseason tournament as a number nine seed, then pulled off a string of upsets to advance to the state finals with a 14-5 record.
The Vineyarders were seeded first in the South division at the start of the postseason but still managed to exceed all expectations. The team is the latest in the high school’s list of state title winners. The girls’ basketball squad won it all during their heyday in 1979 and 1981. Boys’ hockey has won twice, during the 1998-99 season, and again in 2000-2001. The football team won the state Super Bowl in 1999 and 2003. And the track team has also won the states.
“If there’s any one word that can describe this season, the word “magical” is appropriate,” head coach Ned Fennessy said on the bus ride to Shrewsbury. After Thursday’s state title win, he might add the word “perfect” to that description.
The tennis team has posted strong seasons in the past — including a one-loss year — but had never even advanced out of the south section tournament. Coach Fennessy didn’t include “make state championships” on his list of team goals this year — particularly since the squad is made up entirely of underclassmen. He simply wanted the boys to win their section after being denied the title last season by Cape Cod Academy.
Last Saturday, the team did just that, defeating Dover-Sherborn 3-2 at Old Rochester Regional in Mattapoisett to at last hold the gold Bay State-shaped plaque. With that win, the Vineyarders advanced to the state semi-finals, where they defeated two-time defending state champion Weston 4-1.
“I think there was some trepidation — at least on the part of the coach — about facing Weston,” coach Fennessy said. “And to watch them persevere against a team with this record . . . it was exciting.”
Coach Fennessy also didn’t include “go undefeated” on the list of goals either. There is optimism, and then there is reality; and realistically speaking, the odds are not in favor of a team simultaneously winning state finals while maintaining a perfect record.
But nobody could beat this Vineyard team, though other squads have certainly tried. Cape Cod Academy again proved a formidable foil in both the regular season and in the teams’ final meeting in the South Section semifinals; the Vineyard took that last win 3-2. Dover-Sherborn, back on the schedule after a lengthy absence, gave the team a true challenge.
And still the Vineyarders prevailed. Pieces might have cracked along the way, but the whole could not be broken.
This was a team characterized by uncommon resolve as well as talent. It was Kent Leonard finding his inner Agassi and storming back from a first-set loss to demolish his unsuspecting opponent. It was the way Jackson McBride and Natty Schneider were so in sync with one another that when they stalked the doubles court between points, both ready to unleash all of their coiled energy on a perfect serve-return combo, they walked in perfect tandem, pace for pace, sneaker for sneaker.
It was Patrick McCarthy, who’s made a seamless transition from doubles to singles this year, and his marathon matches — the way he “very quietly but very efficiently,” as coach Fennessy described it, picked up the winning match against Weston. It was Justin Smith and Ryan Sawyer, with their complementary individual games—Smith’s leaps and Sawyer’s low returns—shining brighter as they combined forces on the doubles courts. It was Justice Yennie, master of the poker face, giving nothing away to his opponents but taking the win every time.
There’s little doubt that the Vineyard Youth Tennis Center, where the team members took free lessons and began honing their skills and their serves well before they even set foot on a high school court, played a role in the dream team that won this week. The center, now in its 10th year, was the gift of an anonymous Vineyard benefactor, and Coach Fennessy credits its existence with giving his players the opportunities to travel as far as they have. Because of the center, the seeds for this season were planted long ago.
Now they are in full bloom.
So all of these factors — the players, the coach, the center, the victories and defeats that came before Thursday — helped build the team that came away champions this year.
And because the team is so young—not a senior in the lineup—this perfect storm should continue to brew well into 2013.
“They’ll all be back next season,” Coach Fennessy said.
Watch out, Massachusetts.