CHC junior number one Charlotte Dawson drops down to hit a backhand shot during last weekend’s CACC Championships in Chestnut Hill. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

CHC junior number one Charlotte Dawson drops down to hit a backhand shot during last weekend’s CACC Championships in Chestnut Hill. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

This fall the racquetwomen of Chestnut Hill College earned their first regular-season victory over Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference powerhouse Concordia College, but when the Griffins met the Clippers again in last Sunday’s CACC tournament finals, they came up one match short.

Prevailing in three sets at the fourth singles position, Concordia (located just north of New York City) eked out a 5-4 match win over tourney host CHC to take the conference title for the fifth year in a row.

In 2012, Chestnut Hill reached the finals for the first time, falling to Concordia, 5-2 (tournament matches are ended as soon as one team achieves a fifth win in a combination of singles and doubles play. The Griffins graduated their lone singles victor in last year’s tournament, number one Nastia Shcherbakova, but assembled an even stronger squad for 2013.

In a regular-season road match, they overcame Concordia 5-4, which was a milestone for the program. Marie Deleval, a freshman from Grimaud, France won at third singles, while at number five and six the Griffins got successful outcomes from Morgan Oechsle, a junior from Coopersburg, Pa., and Axe Owens, a sophomore out of New Jersey’s Pennington School.

In the doubles matches which always precede singles play in college bouts, CHC succeeded at second doubles courtesy of senior Kelly Dennis (Cincinnati, Ohio) and sophomore Iman Williams-Mulesa (Pickering, Ontario), and won at third doubles as Oechsle teamed up with a sophomore from Cardinal O’Hara, Hayley Craskey.

Speaking of the ascension of the Griffins’ tennis program, seventh-year head coach Albert Stroble related, “It’s been a steady improvement the last four years. It started with Danielle Knott and Maria Parapouras coming in, and then the next year we got Kelly and Nastia. That gave us our core group of players for several seasons, and the success they achieved has helped us to keep attracting quality student athletes.”

Shcherbakova was from Minsk, Belarus, and Parapouras was an Australian import. If you perused the team rosters at the CACC tourney last weekend, you would have noticed that all of the final four squads (Philadelphia University and Delaware’s Goldey Beacom College fell to CHC and Concordia, respectively, in the semifinals) included many foreign-born players.

Goldey Beacom’s team consisted entirely of international recruits, and the only U.S. native playing for Concordia was Californian Nicole Stuhr.

“One reason you see that in Division II is that when some of the international players begin looking at colleges here, they’re a little older than the U.S. kids,” Stroble explained. “They wouldn’t be able to have a full four years of eligibility if they went Division I, which has age restrictions we don’t have. In Division II, they still get financial aid for athletics, which you can’t get in Division III.

“Many of them want to be in or near a large city,” the coach continued, “so Concordia, in New York, is appealing and the Philadelphia schools are, also. I think a great selling point for us is our setting in Chestnut Hill, having the city so close, but still having sort of a small town environment and a beautiful campus.”

It’s helped the Griffins bring in talent from other parts of the U.S., as well, such as current number one Charlotte Dawson, a new junior transfer who’s from Odessa, Tex.

“Charlotte is a transfer from Young Harris College in Georgia, so she already came in with a Division II background,” Stroble said. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to maintain a good balance of talent and experience in the program.”

Williams-Mulesa, a sophomore who started out at CHC last year, has moved up the team ladder to play right behind Dawson.

“Iman was playing at number five as a freshman,” Stoble related, “but when we lost some good players from last year’s team, she realized we needed some other people to step up. She worked very hard over the summer, training and playing in a lot of tournaments.”

With Deleval entering CHC and the number three spot on the team, former number two Dennis has been playing number four this season. In addition to her athletic exploits, the senior has received praise from all quarters for founding and leading the CHC chapter of United For UNIFAT, a service organization that sponsors students at a school in war torn Uganda. Dennis travelled to the African nation last summer, and “U4U,” which was founded at her high school, has now sponsored more than 120 students.

Along with Williams-Mulesa, Dennis is a tennis team co-captain this year. As Stroble pointed out, “Kelly is obviously able to connect with the older players, and she’s just the right person to take the new players under her wing and show them what college tennis is all about. Having her play at number four and having Morgan at number five gives us a lot of depth, since they were both successful higher up the ladder last year. We now have Axe (pronounced ah-shay) at number six, and there’s no number six out there who hits the ball harder than she does.”

As the 2013 CACC tourney got underway at CHC last Saturday, the top-seeded Griffins won the first five matches to be completed in their semifinal bout with number four Philadelphia U. All three doubles flights won at the outset, then singles victories by Dennis and Oechsle ended the contest. In the semifinal that followed, it took number two Concordia more than five hours to subdue the third seed, Goldey Beacom, 5-4.

As the finals began on Sunday, the doubles results mirrored what had occurred during the regular-season clash between the Griffins and Clippers. Dennis and Williams-Mulesa prevailed 8-5 at number two and Oechsle and Craskey completed an 8-4 win at number three, while Concordia’s premier pair of Costanza Mecchi (Rome, Italy) and Stefanie Canals Baker (Pollensa, Spain) took their match, 8-4, over CHC’s Dawson and Deleval.

Mecchi, a tall, powerful freshman who went undefeated in the conference to earn MVP honors, topped Dawson at first singles, 6-0, 6-1. In other early singles results, CHC duplicated two outcomes from the regular-season encounter, first with Owens taking the number six bout, 6-0, 6-2, and then with Oechsle ending the fifth match with two 6-1 sets in her column.

In a key reversal from the teams’ first meeting this fall, Canals-Baker of Concordia defeated Deleval in the third spot, 6-2, 6-4. There were a number of long points played at second singles, but in the end Swede Linda Eliasson got past the Griffins’ Williams-Mulesa, 6-2, 6-4, to even up the team tally at 4-4.

As in their regular-season meeting at fourth singles, CHC’s Dennis won her opening set against the Clippers’ Alla Kravchuk (Tashkent, Uzbekistan), this time at 6-4. Once again, though, Kravchuk rallied, capturing the next two rounds, 6-3, 6-2, and allowing her team to retain the conference crown.

The Griffins (13-2 overall this fall) will continue their season in the spring, playing more regular matches and aiming for a bid to the NCAA Division II tournament next May. CHC’s Stroble has been encouraged not only by the strength of his own squad, but by the depth of the conference as a whole.

“When the regional rankings come out in a few weeks, you’re going to see Concordia, Goldey Beacom, and us ranked very high,” Stroble said. “Teams like Philly U. and Holy Family have also improved, so the conference has definitely put itself on the map.”

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