By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
It hasn’t taken Mark Nigalan long to build Holy Spirit into a girls tennis champion. Just two seasons, in fact.
The Spartans, led by a couple of young singles players as well as senior Courtney Randik, beat out Middle Township and Buena Regional this fall to capture the Cape-Atlantic League National Conference title, and it may just be the start, as Nigalan has a couple of prodigies from his Mark Nigalan Tennis Academy who may be attending Holy Spirit two years from now.
Holy Spirit had a solid mix of seniors and underclassmen, and knowing he was going to have a strong team allowed Nigalan to beef up the schedule to challenge the talent he has on the roster. Playing strong teams such as Millville, as well as Egg Harbor Township and Vineland — who met in the South Jersey Group 4 championship match — paid dividends when the Spartans took on their CAL National rivals.
“The CAL National was a little weaker this year and we got better, so knowing I was going to have a good squad I wanted to make sure Morgan got to play girls like the All-American Tess Fisher (of Vineland) and Emily Manzo (of EHT). As it turned out, we lost all those non-conference matches, but we almost beat Millville and we lost to Ocean City 3-2,” Nigalan said. “We were really gearing up to win the CAL National this year, that was really our goal. I’ll be losing four seniors, so the rebuild will happen again, but we’ll try to develop some younger players.”
The Spartans will have to replace third singles player Courtney Randik as well as several doubles players next fall, but return their top two singles players in sophomore Morgan Grimmie at first singles and Sophia Pasquale, a freshman, at the No. 2 spot.
“I have a great freshman (Pasquale) who was one of my students a few years ago, so knowing I was going to get her, I could develop her without having to do too much groundwork. And I had Morgan Grimmie, who was first-team CAL as a freshman and went 18-5. I think all three of my singles players are going to earn all-CAL honors this year, which is really good. They lost maybe five matches total, and those were to non-conference or state playoff opponents,” Nigalan said. “Sophia is just getting better. She went 17-5 this year as a freshman. I think all of my girls had double-digit wins. I put Millville, Vineland and Ocean City on the schedule so we could renew some of those rivalries from back in the day, and also give Morgan a chance to play Tess and Emily. We had a chance to beat Millville and they were ranked in the Press of Atlantic City’s Elite 11 this year.”
There may be additional help on the way in the years to come, which has Nigalan thinking he may be able to turn Holy Spirit into a strong team that can go out of conference and beat teams such as Egg Harbor Township and Millville.
“We’ll still have a solid Nos. 1 and 2. Morgan will be a junior next year, so I’ll have two more years with her, and three more years with Sophia,” he said. “And I may have some more of my academy kids coming in two years and they are really good players. Doubles is always tough, we just have to rebuild.”
Still, it’s not as though the rest of the teams in the CAL National will simply roll over just because Holy Spirit went 15-5 this year and was undefeated in the conference. Middle Township traditionally is pretty competitive, and Cedar Creek has some rising stars, most notably freshman first singles player Charisse Tigrado.
“Cedar Creek is going to be very good with the freshman they have, and they have another one of my students coming in next year and she’s just as good as their first singles player. Cedar Creek may load up again, so it should be fun,” Nigalan said.
The Spartans’ season continued into this week with the Cape-Atlantic League individual tournaments for singles and doubles, where some of Nigalan’s players will have a chance to test their skills against the league’s best. For now, Nigalan said he and his team and enjoying the conference crown and will worry about the rebuilding process in the offseason.
“As we went through the first part of the season, I saw how strong the rest of the CAL National teams were and I knew what we had. Going into the second half of the season, we saw Middle Township only had one loss. But we played a really tough non-conference schedule. Going undefeated in your conference is always tough, so we exceeded my expectations in that regard,” he said. “It happened to be on senior day that we beat Middle Township on the last day to clinch the conference championship, so that was pretty fitting.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays