Germantown Friends, 2011 Friends Schools League girls tennis champions. Front row (from left) – Hannah Ceisler, Anna Bezahler, Jessica Smith (coach). Back row – Joanna Booth, Emma Clark, Lauren Shinn, Olivia Fiechter, Haley Abbott. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Germantown Friends won Friends Schools League team championship in tennis back in 2000, but for the next 10 seasons, the league title chiefly resided with Main Line schools such as Friends Central and Shipley.

The GFS Tigers changed that this year, with a young team that went through both the FSL regular season and the four-team tournament without a loss, clinching the crown last Tuesday afternoon with a 3-2 victory over visiting Shipley.

First doubles player Haley Abbott was the only senior in action this year when the squad played in the five-match FSL format, with fellow senior co-captain Emma Greenstreet appearing when a third doubles duo was called for in non-league seven-match contests.

“We had a lot of young girls who didn’t think about what happened in the past; they were really gung ho and wanted to dominate the competition,” said Germantown mentor Jessica Smith, who started out as assistant coach five years ago and then moved up to the head spot. “It was a hardworking group that cared about hitting balls and running rather than what outfits they were wearing and the other social aspects. On rainy days they would all come to me and say, ‘Where can we go to hit?’ “

Familiar assistant coaches Harry Baker and Kim McMenamin were back working with the Tigers this fall, along with Julie Raezer, a new member of the staff.

The team’s final overall record of 16-1 included non-league wins over Germantown Academy (5-2), Penn Charter (6-1), and Hill School (4-3). In another four-singles, three-doubles contest, the Tigers fell to Agnes Irwin, 3-4. GFS hosted that encounter, but followed the Girls Inter-Ac League format instead of the five-match Friends Schools format, which would have had the Tigers winning, 3-2.

A new number one player, freshman Joanne Booth, bought fresh talent and enthusiasm to the varsity program following her undefeated eighth-grade season on the middle school team. Although she’s still eligible to play in the 14’s division in U.S. Tennis Association tournaments, Booth has been participating in 16’s events for some time, and was recently ranked 40th in the Middle States section among that older group.

Back in the 1950’s her grandfather was a founder of Philadelphia’s pioneering African American tennis organization, the Woodford Tennis Club, and her father, Christopher Booth, played for Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. This fall, Booth’s only loss came in a regular-season bout against Abington Friends junior Alex Nuzhdin, and the GFS ninth grader avenged that defeat on Monday of last week, downing Nuzhdin to help the Tigers overcome the fourth-seeded Kangaroos, 3-2, in the FSL semifinals.

The weather at the start of the week was a far cry from the conditions just a few days earlier. Rain, snow, and the need to hold a play-in match for the last slot in the FSL tournament had set back the playoff schedule nearly a week. Everything worked out for the best, as sunny weather greeted a crowd of GFS fans who turned out on Tuesday for the tennis final and for an FSL soccer semifinal being played on an adjacent field.

While the Tigers were eliminating Abington in one of the semifinals on Monday, third-seeded Shipley was busy overcoming number two Friends Central in another 3-2 battle. In regular-season encounters, Germantown had defeated Shipley by the same score, and had knocked off Friends Central, 4-1.

This fall, Coach Smith took the extra step of seeing to her players’ nutritional requirements by having them gather for a pre-match munch at courtside.

“I’d give them fruit, vegetables, and usually a little protein,” she explained. “Some of these girls don’t eat lunch at school on the day of a match, so they could come here and have some carrots, pineapple, melon, soybeans and things like that. It was a good bonding activity, and I think it kept everybody healthy and gave them proper energy to play their matches.”

The holistic approach also extended to coping with any nervousness that might arise in an important contest.

“One day when we had to practice indoors, we worked on breathing exercises and techniques to calm us down,” Smith revealed. “Then if we saw someone was having a little anxiety out there we could remind them about their exercises and that would help take them out of that anxious place.”

In Tuesday’s championship match the Tigers picked up their first two victories relatively quickly, starting with Booth’s 6-1, 6-1 effort against the Gators’ Anne Lovett. Soon sophomore number two Olivia Fiechter finished up, downing visitor Haley Banks, 6-1, 6-3. Fiechter is best known is squash circles, as the top scholastic player in the Philadelphia region and a member of the 2011 U.S. Junior National Team.

She’s also been a rock for GFS in tennis, losing only one match at the number two spot over the last two years.

When Germantown prevailed against Shipley during the 2011 regular season, the deciding match had been a second doubles contest won by Tigers tenth-graders Hannah Ceisler and Emma Clark. After that, the second doubles spot for the Gators was taken over by two different athletes, both strong players on the school’s potent squash team. This duo, Pinky Rowe and Sydney Majors, took two 6-1 sets from their GFS counterparts on Tuesday, making the match score 2-1.

GFS could still clinch the affair with just one more victory, and it was provided by Abbott and her partner at first doubles, junior Lauren Shinn.

They had lost to Shipley’s Sophie Cummins and Bella Kaufman earlier in the season, but this time the Tiger tandem turned the tables and won, 6-2, 6-3.

“The first time we played them we didn’t have a good day; we sort of backed off too much,” Shinn said. “This time we went to the net better and we were just more aggressive overall.”

The Tigers now officially owned the championship plaque, although junior Anna Bezahler would lose an extended engagement with Shipley number three Tayller Marcee to make the final score 3-2. Dropping the opening set, 4-6, Bezahler battled back to take the second round by the same score, then Marcee prevailed 10-5 in a super tiebreaker that was played in lieu of a full third set.

With all of their singles players back for 2012 and very few graduation losses overall, the Tigers should be in a good position to defend their new league title next fall.

“There was a lot of competition to be on the varsity squad this year,” Smith noted, “so we have a number of younger girls who will be eager to move up.”


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