by Tom Utescher

A gutsy come-from-behind win at second singles by junior Kelly Dennis propelled Chestnut Hill College into the finals of the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference tournament last weekend. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Just a few seasons ago, a trip to the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference championship match seemed like a hazy dream for the Chestnut Hill College tennis team, but that vision came into focus for the Griffins last weekend, when they hosted the two-day conference tournament.

On Saturday, third-seeded CHC avenged a 1-8 regular-season loss to Deleware’s Goldey Beacom College by topping the number two Lightning, 5-4. In the championship contest the next day, CHC hung in for a time against three-time defending titlist Concordia College of Bronzville, N.Y., trailing 2-4 two-thirds of the way through.

The visiting Clippers then secured the one win they needed to retain the title, 5-2. When one team has mathematically clinched an overall match win, play is halted, so the other two matches were never finished.
Nevertheless, it had been quite a run for Chestnut Hill, which wrapped up the fall season at 11-4 overall.

Earlier last week, the Griffins got a workout in a rescheduled match again the New York Institute of Technology. CHC played well but succumbed, 2-7, to NYIT, which had just won the East Coast Conference championship.

Griffins head coach Albert Stroble remarked, “We’ve come such a long way since our seniors were freshmen. We were 3-17 back then. This group has put Chestnut Hill tennis on the map, and it certainly makes things a lot easier to attract quality student athletes to our school.”

The Griffins’ everyday line-up spanned the age spectrum. Seniors Nastia Shcherbakova and Maria Parapouras held down the first and third singles spots, respectively. Junior Kelly Dennis played second singles most of the time, although early in the season she occupied the top spot for a few weeks. Sophomore Morgan Oechsle was CHC’s number four, while the fifth and sixth positions were filled by a pair of freshmen, Iman Williams-Mulesa and Axé Owens.

Dennis is team co-captain along with senior Danielle Knott, who spent the fall on the injured list, making the Griffins’ achievements even more significant. Recently cleared to begin practicing again, Knott will return for the spring portion of the season.

Back in late September, it was only a win by Parapouras at third singles that saved CHC from being whitewashed by the Lightning of Goldey Beacom. That meant the Griffins would have to reverse the outcome of at least four matches to beat Beacom in last Saturday’s conference semifinal.

Parapouras once again did her part, taking down Blanca Sancho at third singles, 6-2, 6-4. Earlier, she and Shcherbakova had joined forces at first doubles to post an 8-5 victory over Sancho and her partner, CACC Player of the Year Stephanie Puentes Robinson.

The Griffins emerged from pairs play with an important 2-1 edge. Williams-Mulesa and Owens teamed up in the third flight to win a heated bout, 9-7, over the Lightning’s Rocio Cabanillas Moreno and Vanessa Leon.
Goldey Beacom got its win at second doubles, where Filipa Correia and Ana Melnikova overcame CHC’s Dennis and Oechsle, 8-6.

The opening set at first singles was a battle royal, but Puentes Robinson eventually prevailed against Shcherbakova, 7-5. The GBC sophomore went on to win the second set, 6-1, completing an undefeated fall campaign in the conference. Her only loss all season came in an out-of-conference bout against regional powerhouse NYIT.
Chestnut Hill picked up a win at fifth singles from Williams-Mulesa, who topped the visitors’ Leon, 6-2, 6-4.

However, the Lighning nailed down W’s at fourth and sixth singles thanks to Correia ((6-3, 6-0) and Melnikova (6-1, 6-4), leveling the match score at 4-4 with only the second singles players left on the court.

Here, the athletes split sets, with Cabanillas Moreno masterful at the outset with a 6-0 win, and with CHC’s Dennis digging in and battling back to claim the second round, 6-4. Cabanillas Moreno, one of two players from Spain at Goldey Beacom, had topped Dennis, 6-1, 6-3, in their regular season meeting, but last Saturday the Griffins junior completed her payback with a 6-4 third set that secured the team victory.

“Kelly really picked it up over the last two weeks,” Stroble said. “I think she lost a little bit of her confidence in the middle of the season, but she’s definitely got it back now.”

In the other semifinal earlier on Saturday, Concordia had won each of the first five matches to be completed, dispatching fourth-seeded Holy Family University, 5-0. This meant the Clippers were relatively fresh for Sunday’s final, since four of their singles players did not have to play full matches before the contest was ended.

Contrary to the doubles outcome the previous day, Sunday saw CHC’s second flight emerge with a win, as Dennis and Oechsle downed Ana Mendes and Clara Catanzano, 8-6. The other two tandems for Chestnut Hill stayed right with their rivals for a time, but both Concordia duos pulled away late.

At number one, Shcherbakova and Parapouras fell to Yuliya Plevako and Luisa Candido by an 8-4 count, and the Clippers’ third pair, Alla Kravchuk and Camilla Xavier, won 8-5 over Williams-Mulesa and Owens.

Back in September, Shcherbakova had needed a 7-5 third set to overcome Kravachuk in a match when both were playing second singles. In last weekend’s rematch in the number one spot, the CHC senior started off 7-5, then forced frustration errors from her opponent in the second set to wrap up a 6-2 victory.

“I think things start to click for you when you’re a senior, and you’re better at putting things in perspective,” Stroble said. “Nastia didn’t let it get to her when she missed a shot. She just kept going and she turned it on when she needed to.”

Things weren’t going as well for some other Griffins. At fourth singles, the visitors’ Mendes topped Oechsle, 6-0, 6-2, and Concordia number six Estelle Fougeray, who did not have to play a doubles match earlier in the afternoon, took the number six match over Owens, 6-2, 6-0.

Now up 4-2 in the overall team score, Concordia needed just one more individual win to retain the CACC title. The Griffins still had a shot, because Dennis, at second singles, and Williams-Mulesa, at number five, had each won their first set.

Unfortunately for the vocal CHC home crowd, Parapouras was in trouble at third singles. Back in mid-September, she had defeated Plevako, 6-3, 6-4, but in this encounter Plevako, also a senior, captured the first set at 6-2 and went up 3-0 in the second. Parapouras fought back gamely to close the gap, but ultimately, Plevako prevailed, 6-3. With the team outcome decided, the second and fifth singles contests were not completed.

The Griffins will resume play in the spring, testing their mettle in matches against some nationally-ranked opponents, and hoping to earn a bid to the NCAA Division II tournament.