by Tom Utescher
For the fourth year in a row, the girls of Germantown Friends faced Shipley School in the Friends Schools League tennis finals, which took place this year on the Bryn Mawr campus of the top-seeded Shipley Gators on October 30.
The GFS Tigers had won the title in 2011 and 2013, and this year they captured their third championship in the four-year span, winning the last match out on the court to clinch a 3-2 victory. With the championship contest tied 2-2, GFS senior Ann Carpenter and freshman Caroline Kavanagh came from a set down at first doubles to pull out the decisive victory.
Shipley had beaten Friends Central in the league semifinals two days earlier, while the second-seeded Tigers had dispatched number three Moorestown Friends, 4-1, duplicating their regular-season score against the New Jersey franchise.
Germantown had first faced Shipley back in the 2014 league opener in September, when the Gators had prevailed 3-2. GFS won the two doubles bouts, but lost the singles matches while playing without two injured athletes, senior number one Joanna Booth and freshman number two Helen Ruger. Booth, ranked in the top 20 in the USTA Middle States section, missed a number of early matches, coming into the season sporting an orthopedic boot meant to protect two stress fractures in her foot.
In the first month of the season, the Tigers went 4-4 overall.
“Because Joanna was out, the early losses weren’t really discouraging,” noted second-year head coach Kim McMenamin. “A number of the girls got some valuable experience with the challenge of playing ‘up’. Obviously, we were excited when we got Joanna back so we could see what we could do at full strength.”
The Shipley setback would be the team’s only loss in the Friends League, as the Tigers went on to beat both Friends Central and Moorestown Friends by 4-1 scores, finishing the regular season 10-4 overall and 6-1 in FSL bouts. They would face then Moorestown Foxes again in the league semifinals on October 28.
Booth, who had played in the regular-season meeting, was now sidelined with a respiratory bug. Instead of reshuffling her line-up, Coach McMenamin forfeited the number one match, and all the other players won in their usual positions. This included junior number three Sophie Bunson, who avenged a loss to her Moorestown counterpart back in the regular-season encounter.
“She won 6-2, 6-2, and it was one of the best matches she played all season,” McMenamin said.
Speaking of her freshman number two, the coach stated, “Helen played very well for us all season, and for the first part she had to play number one in a lot of matches. She definitely showed maturity beyond her years.”
Because of the injuries that GFS had been coping with at the time of the first meeting with Shipley back in September, the player match-ups were entirely different when the teams met again in the FSL finals.
“Joanna was still a bit congested, but you couldn’t really tell on the court,” McMenamin related. “Jill Nehrbas just played very well for Shipley.”
The Gators’ junior number one, a Middle States top-20 player like Booth, took the first set at 6-4, then went up 5-2 in the second. Booth battled to close it up to 5-4, then Nehrbas clinched the match. In a bout between juniors at third singles, Shipley picked up a second victory as McKinley Lovett defeated the Tigers’ Bunson, 6-2, 6-2.
Lovett’s twin sister, Britt, was not as fortunate up at second singles where, after a number of extended rallies, Ruger wrapped up a win for visiting Germantown, 6-3, 6-3. GFS had already chalked up a “W” in the first match to finish. This was in the second doubles flight, where senior Emily Abbott and freshman Lindsey Golden went past Shipley seniors Sophie Pilkington and Jordan Gottlieb.
With the team tally even at 2-2, McMenamin related, “It ended up coming down to the third set of last match, with everybody else watching. There was definitely an electric atmosphere.”
The Tigers’ Carpenter and Kavanagh were facing the Gators’ first doubles duo of senior Rachel Grobman and sophomore Kate Aschkenasy.
“Our pair dropped the first set, 3-6,” McMenamin said. “They were playing really nervous and tentative, but then they came back to win the second, 6-3.”
For a time, the Shipley tandem recaptured their early momentum in the match and took a 4-2 lead in the deciding set, but Carpenter and Kavanagh then dug in, grinding out four straight games for the match victory and the league championship.
Asked about the personality of her 2014 squad, McMenamin responded “They were a fun team. They were kind of quirky, but they worked really well together. By far, they were the most mentally tough of all the teams I’ve coached.”
UPDATE – In the Friends Schools League individual tournament last week, the Tigers brought home gold medals thanks to Booth at first singles and the doubles teams of Carpenter/Kavanagh and Abbott/Golden. Also making the finals, Ruger and Bunson won silver medals at second and third singles, respectively.