The Episcopal Academy 2023 PAISAA Tennis Champions (Photo by Lennie Malmgren for PSD)
By John Knebels
(Photos by Lennie Malmgren for PSD)
NEWTOWN SQUARE – The “there were no losers” adage usually sounds a tad trite.
It did, however, accurately assess the first-ever PAISAA girls’ tennis championship.
On an overcast afternoon November 15 at Episcopal Academy High School, the host Churchwomen fought off a spirited challenge from Baldwin School and emerged victorious, winning three of the match’s five events.
Entering the final, Episcopal kept hearing annoying reminders how they were heavily favored, though that makes some sense when considering the Churchwomen have seized six consecutive Inter-Academic League championships and 23 plaques since 1995.
While predicting a winner doesn’t require much skill, the “you shouldn’t lose” message has been know to alter an athlete’s focus.
“You don’t go into a match thinking that way,” said Episcopal senior Shelby Pasternack. “Almost every single team we play against plays their hardest against us. So we have to play our best.”
Episcopal dominated in second and third singles. While sophomore Avery Morris took care of the former with a 6-0, 6-4 over freshman Nava Khojasteh, junior Carter Yearley did the same in the latter, upending junior Avani Shah-Lipman, 6-2, 6-2.
On an adjacent court featuring a first doubles match, Episcopal senior Izzy Rozes and freshman Olivia Olson captured a 6-2, 6-1 tournament-clinching victory at the expense of seniors Eesha Sharma and Megan Chan.
“It was really special to be the first one,” said Rozes, referring to winning the inaugural PAISAA final. “We had a really amazing season.”
With four of their seven starters returning, Episcopal should undoubtedly pose a formidable fortress to those planning on ending their PAISAA reign at one.
“The future of the program is definitely strong,” said Rozes. “I look forward to seeing what next year’s team will be able to accomplish.”
Led by first singles senior standout Bella Hu, Baldwin actually won the match’s first event. As she has done throughout her brilliant scholastic career, the Brown University-bound Hu overmatched Episcopal senior Kamara Helton – a Providence College signee –– by a quick 6-0, 6-0.
No shame in losing to Hu, who never lost a match at Episcopal and is currently ranked 59th by the United States Tennis Association (USTA).
“I think my dedication and consistent work ethic play into my success,” said Hu. “I practice for around two hours every day on top of school. Having the support from my dad, coaches, and teammates has also helped me reach the place I am in right now.
“Each match is a different experience, a different battle for me, but I’m always trying to reach for more and improve myself. I never assume any wins or losses, and I fight for every ball as I try to apply the techniques and strategies I have been working on in practice.”
Hu’s teammates will miss both her tennis prowess and the intangibles she brings to the program.
“You can always count on her, and not just for tennis,” said Baldwin senior Marin Alter. “Every single match, she encourages all of us. She watches our shots and tells us how to lock in and how to be better.”
Senior Allie Weiser, also a Baldwin backbone in basketball and softball, agrees.
“She’s so humble,” said Weiser. “She’s a great teacher.”
Alter and Weiser finished their scholastic tennis career on a high note by edging EA’s aforementioned Pasternack and junior Mel Kryukov, 7-5-6-4, in second doubles.
“They call us the ‘dynamic duo,’” said Alter. “I think it’s because our shot selection, and our strengths, match well together. I’m really good at the baseline; she’s really good at the net. And we’re friends, too. It’s easy to communicate. We always lift each other.”
Episcopal’s Pasternack said she and her teammates took absolutely nothing for granted.
“The last time we played Baldwin, Mel and I went into a close tiebreaker to beat them, so we knew the match was going to be another challenging one,” said Pasternack. “Being able to rely on our other teammates knowing we already won the tournament was such a nice feeling.
“Going into the match against Baldwin was very nerve racking, especially because the top of their ladder is full of talent and competition,” continued Pasternack. “We knew we had the ability to beat them. We had done it twice before, and we knew we needed to be on our game to win that day. Baldwin gave us hard competition, but it was amazing tennis to play and to watch. To be the first-ever PAISAA girls’ tennis champion is an unexplainable feeling and just adds on top of our amazing season.”
Baldwin coach Tracy Tooke extolled her troops.
“These players have a palpable team chemistry that fuels their talent and competitiveness,” she said. “It’s no surprise to me that they finished in PAISAA’s championship final round. They should be very proud of themselves; I know I am.”
(Contact John Knebels at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnknebels.)