Like surprise gifts from the heavens, Rose Hayes and Sofia Anzalone were not expected, but there they were on the first day of preseason practice for the Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School girls tennis team. When coach Mike Clauberg saw the two United States Tennis Association-ranked players swing, he immediately realized the talent he had available to him.
“I drooled,” he said.
Then, the more Clauberg saw, the more he liked.
Hayes is a seventh-grader from East Moriches and Anzalone is a freshman from Center Moriches. Along with their youth, they had both never played for a school team before, but their polished skills at such a tender young age speak for themselves. Hayes (16-2) plays first singles and Anzalone (15-1) plays second singles.
Asked about Hayes, Clauberg said: “She could be the best player I’ve ever seen play here, her and Sofia. I don’t know how you can compare the two because they’re both so close. They’re just far above and beyond at their age and grade level than I’ve ever had here in the program. These two really are, I think, some of the best players in the county. Both of them are the epitome of fundamental excellence, a coach’s dream through and through when you see them hit.”
One teammate called them “the prodigies.”
Interestingly, Clauberg and Hayes have a past connection. He instructed Hayes at a tennis camp when she was in grades 1, 2 and 3.
“We used to bring her up to hit with the older kids because she was so good that the younger kids couldn’t hit with her, so we knew that she would be something special,” he said. “Little did I know that she would be here one day at McGann-Mercy.”
Hayes showed her quality last Wednesday in a 6-0, 6-0 defeat of Center Moriches senior Kayla Hujber. The Mercy girl put away 14 winners while committing only five unforced errors and one double fault. Her ability to get to balls was clear as she allowed Hujber only two winners.
The third-seeded Hayes went on to earn a place in the singles final of the Suffolk County Division IV Tournament. She will play No. 1 Jackie Bukzin of Eastport-South Manor in the final Thursday at Shoreham-Wading River High School. To get there, Hayes handed her teammate, Anzalone, her first loss of the season, 6-1, 6-0, in the semifinals on Tuesday in Shoreham.
Hayes speaks ever so softly and swings a racket with finesse. She started playing when she was 9 years old.
How did she become the player she is?
“Just practicing and working hard,” she said. “A lot of it is fitness, but tennis is also a big mental game, so that kind of helps, too.”
Anlazone, who has more of a power game and likes to attack the net, has been playing since she was 4. “I’m learning the game more and more every time I step onto the court,” she said.
Last Wednesday’s match brought added interest for Anzalone. Not only did she face her hometown team, but she played against her cousin, senior Erika Koscinski, for the first time in a high school match.
“We were like goofing around, talking,” Anzalone said. “It was fun.”
Following Anzalone’s 6-1, 6-0 win, the two hugged.
Hayes and Anzalone share a vital trait in common.
“Both of them are super competitive,” Clauberg said. “They don’t like to lose, and they’re super athletic.”
The impact they have made is obvious. Despite losing six players from last year’s team and being ranked third in its league by coaches in the preseason, Mercy (14-0, 12-0) posted its second straight undefeated regular season and League VIII championship.
Said Clauberg, “They’re both so talented, it’s crazy.”
Call them the gifts that keep giving.
Photo caption: Sofia Anzalone, left, and Rose Hayes, who both had never played for a school team before, have been the top two singles players for League VIII champion Bishop McGann-Mercy. (Credit: Bob Liepa)