On paper, it looked like a great match-up as the Hand and Guilford boys' tennis teams were both 9-1. But as many know, how something looks on paper isn't always how it plays out on the court.
The Hand and Guilford boys' tennis teams renewed their rivalry on May 4 in a match-up of Southern Connecticut Conference Division I heavyweights. A late change of venue moved the match to the Guilford Racquet and Swim Club, but nothing about the results changed from a season ago. In 2011, the Tigers and Indians came into their yearly showdown with equally pristine records as Hand won 7-0 and the same held true last week as Hand did it again, upending Guilford 7-0.
"Just like in every match, we try to take the positive over the negative," said Guilford Coach Andy Raucci. "We've talked about what we are not doing well for quite some time and we addressed that as each doubles team or singles guy came off the court. We evaluate all the pros and cons; we know we are up against a senior-laden team, they've got a lot of experience, and we were in their position two years ago when they had a lot of the same faces coming up when they were sophomores and freshmen that we have now. The roles are kind of reversed, but our goals in matches like this is to get better."
The Tigers (10-1) came into the contest winners of seven straight, having not dropped a single set since a 5-2 win over Hall on April 10. Still, Guilford welcomed its rivals with a full head of steam at its back as the Indians (9-2) had won their first nine matches before dropping a closely contested 4-3 decision to Hamden just days prior to its date with Hand.
But as the Tigers proved, records can be deceiving. Hand features a roster of seven seniors and experience that equals its lofty goals for this season. On the flipside, Guilford only has two seniors and three juniors as it is in the midst of rebuilding a program which won a state title only two years ago.
"The best thing about these matches is they prepare us for later in the year," said Guilford co-captain David Wagner. "If you are never challenged, you are never going to know what you are made of. Matches like this show us what we are made of and what we need to improve on."
Hand looked every bit like a dominating team that could contend for a conference or state title against Guilford. The Tigers earned a clean sweep overall as No. 1 singles was won by Scott Rubenstein over Guilford's Luke Lemieux 6-0, 6-1. Alex Reager earned a win for Hand at No. 2 singles by knocking off Wagner 6-0, 6-1; and James Drum won his match over Cavin Amble 6-0, 6-0 in No. 3 singles.
"I came in knowing [Reager] was a great player. I was probably a little bit of the underdog as probably a lot of us were coming into this match, but we were all focused on working hard for every point, regardless of the score," Wagner said. "There were a couple points where I was sliding and diving and he hits the ball at a remarkable pace that it is hard for me to keep up with that. He is has a lot of experience and is a great player."
Yanshuo Yang kept the Tigers' attack paced with his 6-1, 6-1 win over Matt Murphy in No. 4 singles. David Schulz finished off the singles sweep with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Cameron Charbonneau in No. 5 singles, while the doubles pairings were just as dominant. Pat Monico and Drew Gordon earned a hard-fought 6-3, 6-1 win versus Guilford's top doubles tandem of Juan Lluberes and Connor Remington, and Walter Yungblood and Nate Vancil finished off the match at No. 2 doubles with a 6-1, 6-2 win against Niall Kneerim and Wiley Small.
"It was tough to get used to their play because they are a very good doubles team, very experienced," said Lluberes, a Guilford co-captain. "They've played together for awhile now so it was tough to calm the nerves. In the first set, I wasn't so calm and Connor settled in and he was confident. In the second set, I felt a lot more calm to make mistakes, take those risks, and try to put the ball in places where it should be going."
The Indians came into the match with very few misconceptions as to what the ultimate outcome might be as both captains and the coach preached this match was a test that would let them know where they stood. Last season, Guilford came into its match with Hand with eight wins before a 7-0 loss sent them on a losing streak as it was pitted against some of the conference's stiffest competition.
"One of the things about this team is we are a really young team; there a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing," Lluberes said "With the experience Dave and I have as captains, I think we have a good perspective on this team and where we want to take it, and with these freshmen, we can really set the tone, and over the four years, they are going to be a better team by the end. It is not necessarily this year that we can win it all; we are going to do our best, but our main goal is to build a team and be better at the end of the season than at the start."
Though it was the Indians' largest defeat of the season, Raucci remains steadfast in his belief that though the match wasn't what it appeared to be on paper and that his team could use the loss as a way to grade itself and move forward.
"I have no doubt this group is able to analyze what we did and put the negative behind us and move on," he said. "Again, we have very specific goals we set as team and as individuals to get better, along with things we want to achieve. Playing our best tennis at the end of the season is our ultimate goal all the time."