By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The fate of the South Jersey Group 4 tennis championship rested in the hands of two girls who had exactly zero varsity experience prior to this season. Vineland juniors Kara Kuchinski and Sakshi Thakkar were locked in a heated battle with Egg Harbor Township’s second doubles team of Christine Vu and Asia Lackland. All the other matches were finished, the team score was tied, 2-2, and fans of both teams gathered around the fence outside of court No. 5.
It was a lot of pressure, but Kuchinski and Thakkar somehow handled it, winning the third set to take the match, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 to give the Fighting Clan their first sectional girls tennis championship. It was a heartbreaking loss for the top-seeded and previously undefeated Eagles, who came up empty for a second straight year in the championship match.
“We talked to our coach after the second set and we really got pumped up. We were nervous the whole time, but that wasn’t going to stop us,” Kuchinski said.
“It was so crazy to think we got that winning point. We lost our energy (after the first set). In the first set, we wanted to win really badly, but then we started making a lot of mistakes. We talked about that, not making mistakes, no gifts to them,” Thakkar said. “Our teammates kept cheering for us the whole time, so we wanted to win for them. Our whole team is mostly seniors, and it’s their last year to do this.”
The teams split the first two singles positions, as Vineland’s Tess Fisher got past Emily Manzo 6-1, 6-1, while EHT’s Sarah Phung beat Riya Patel 6-2, 6-3. Vineland’s first doubles team of Priya Patel and Jocelyn Cortes were able to hold off EHT’s Samantha Phung and Gabriella Guimapang, 6-2, 6-4, putting the pressure on EHT’s Tiffany Trivers at third singles. She responded with a scrappy 6-4, 6-4 win over Tithi Thakkar, tying the team score, 2-2.
At second doubles, Kuchinski and Sakshi Thakkar jumped out to a 6-3 victory in the first set, but Vu and Lackland rallied for a 7-6 win in the second, winning the tiebreaker 7-2.
“This is Kara’s first year, and Sakshi has been with us on JV in the past. I give them so much credit. They struggled, more so emotionally. That’s a tough position for a high school kid to be in and they overcame a lot of pressure. People don’t realize how much pressure there is in tennis. You’re out there by yourself. It’s a pressure sport,” said Vineland coach Dom Massaro. “What helped us is we played them earlier in the season, so we knew where the girls had to work and where it was possible to get points. We knew two or three of the singles matches were going to be difficult, but give credit to Tithi, she fought. Our kids aren’t your typical tennis players. Tess is really our only true tennis player, but they played with a lot of heart, and they deserve it.
“We emphasized to the girls that they weren’t playing their opponent, they were playing themselves,” he added. “That’s what it was. It was a matter of which girls were going to be able to handle the pressure.”
“It was so intense. They played awesome. They really had the heart, the want and the will, and that’s what got us through it,” said Fisher, one of the top singles players in the state. “It was nerve-wracking the whole time, but we knew they had it. This is huge for Vineland. We’re really making history for Vineland High School right now. Whatever is next, we’re excited.”
Kuchinski and Thakkar were hot to start the third set, jumping out to a 3-0 lead. But EHT continued to rally, cutting the lead to 3-1 and then, later, 4-3. But Kuchinski and Thakkar gathered themselves and won the next two games to seal the championship.
“We knew Cherry Hill East was going to be a very tough match and our singles girls pulled through for us in that match, so today we owed it to them,” Sakshi Thakkar said. “We’ve never really played with pressure before, and today we had to for the first time. It was a new experience, but I like it. It’s great.”
Vineland (18-5) had to battle its way through the tournament as a No. 6 seed. After a 5-0, first-round win over No. 11 Toms River North, the Fighting Clan upset No. 3 Eastern, 4-1. They then knocked off defending champion and No. 2 seed Cherry Hill East in the semifinals before ousting top-seeded EHT (14-1), which beat No. 9 Kingsway and fourth-seeded Millville after a first-round bye.
“It feels awesome. I feel like the team is so much more important than any one individual,” Fisher said. “We’re all together and I’ve been with them since freshman year. It’s so exciting. It’s always been a dream to get this far.”
“We’ve always told the girls that they are a special group. We knew it would be a memorable day, and they believed that,” Massaro said. “We entered the tournament hoping we could win one or two rounds, but as they won they started to believe more and more. They got past Cherry Hill East, and we knew what we were up against with EHT. We knew we could get three points. This is amazing, and this is what makes sports what it is, and this is why you play the game.”
Eagles coach Alene Hartman said she was extremely proud of her team despite losing in the sectional championship match for the second straight year.
“We beat them 4-1 earlier in the season, but their doubles have improved a lot. They know when to peak. I’m proud of the way our girls played. They played with a lot of determination, Vineland was just a split-step better today,” she said. “I’m really proud of the way they played. Only one team was going to win this. There are times when I wish there were ties in tennis, and today is one of those days. But I’m proud of the way they played. At the end of the day, we had a very successful run in this tournament. We’ve gotten to the finals twice, and hopefully next year will be our year to win it.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays