by Tom Utescher
When Chestnut Hill College’s athletic program moved up from NCAA Division III to Division II in the 2008-2009 academic year, a major long-term goal for every Griffins team was to receive a bid to a D-II postseason tournament.
Last month the women’s tennis team became the first franchise at the college to earn that distinction. Watching an on-line selection show on the evening of April 24, the Griffins racquetwomen rejoiced as they were awarded the seventh seed in the East Region of the NCAA tourney.
Four days later in Manchester, N.H., the Griffins fell, 5-3, to second-seeded Southern New Hampshire University, but they had etched their names into Chestnut Hill College’s athletic annals.
Head coach Albert Stroble directs both the men’s and women’s programs at Chestnut Hill, and he’s worked with the women’s team since the fall of 2007, the last year that the Griffins competed in NCAA Division III. His assistant coaches are Drew Silverman and Ryan Gargullo, a graduate of the old Chestnut Hill Academy. With the move up in divisions, the school was able to award scholarships specifically for athletics.
“The program going Division II was definitely a draw, and so is the fact that the team has been steadily improving,” said Stroble. “That goes for recruiting too; the better you do, the higher caliber of player you can attract.”
Noting that Chestnut Hill offers a verdant campus bordered by the Morris Arboretum and Fairmount Park, Stroble noted, “You’re also just minutes from the center of a major city, so it’s like we have the best of both worlds. I think that’s an important feature for all of our students.”
Stroble wasn’t surprised that his squad made the NCAA’s this season.
“We were knocking on the door last year – we were one spot out,” he said. “So it was a goal of ours this year to get into the tournament.”
The college tennis season is strangely spread throughout the school year. Many women’s teams play almost all of their matches in the fall, and that’s when a number of conference championships are held. The NCAA tournament, on the other hand, occurs at the end of the spring season.
Last fall, the Griffins ladies were 13-3 overall, including a loss to New York’s Concordia College in the finals of the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference tournament. This spring they went 6-3 in regular-season bouts (a 10th contest was cancelled) before making their NCAA appearance.
“I’ve tried to spread the matches around a bit so that we get more work in the spring,” Stroble said. “You can get your NCAA bid in the fall if you win certain conferences, but my feeling is that you also need some spring matches to prepare for the actual tournament.”
Coming in to the 2011-2012 season, Stroble knew the top of his line-up would be strong, because he was returning his three best players from the previous year. Number one Nastia Shcherbakova, a native of Minsk, Belarus, was back at number one, along with number two Kelly Dennis (an Ohioan) and number three Maria Parapouras, who hails from Victoria, Australia.
Freshman Morgan Oechsle, who comes from Coopersburg, in Buck County, earned the number four spot, with junior veteran Danielle Knott (Mt. Vernon, N.Y.) moving to number five. The last singles spot (college matches consist of three doubles flights, followed by six singles) went to another rookie, Girls High graduate Alexis Puhl.
Junior Regina Doherty and sophomore Olivia Stevenson lent depth to the team.
During the fall portion of the season, CHC defeated the other three Philadelphia schools in its conference, Philadelphia University, Holy Family, and University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. USP fell victim to the Griffins again during the spring campaign (Chestnut Hill did not play the other two) and CHC also recorded a victory over Division I La Salle University.
Among the spring setbacks was a 3-6 loss at Southern New Hampshire on St. Patrick’s Day. Meeting the SNHU Penmen once more in the NCAA’s, CHC saw Parapouras and Oechsle combine for an 8-5 (pro-set) victory at second doubles, but the Griffins lost the other two tandem tilts.
“When we got into the singles, I thought we might be in pretty good shape, because each of our top four won the first set,” Stroble related.
Parapouras and Oechsle each closed out their opponents to win by scores of 6-1, 6-2, but SNHU prevailed at fifth and sixth singles to lead 4-3 in the match. In the top two spots, the players for the Penmen rallied to split sets with Shcherbakova (7-6 [7-5], 0-6) and Dennis (6-2, 5-7).
In the third set of the second singles clash, Dennis fell, 1-6, to Diana Vamvakitis. That clinched the team victory for SNHU, so the first singles match was discontinued with Shcherbakova leading in the third.
“I know Kelly took it hard, but the way she played all year was part of the reason we made the tournament in the first place,” Stroble said.
With no seniors on the team this season, Chestnut Hill’s recruiting efforts will be geared towards adding depth to its roster rather than revamping the current line-up. Stroble will look to make the Griffins’ tough non-conference schedule even more challenging.
He pointed out, “If your goal is to move up to the next level, you need to test yourself against some teams that are already there.”