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Girls Tennis Preview: Even with Hayes, Mercy has its work cut out

Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School produced one of the best girls tennis teams in its history in 2011, according to coach Mike Clauberg. How good was last year’s team? Last year’s Monarchs, he said, would have been a good matchup for that 2011 team.

How good will this year’s Mercy team be?

Well, Mercy could have its troubles and will likely see a drop from the brilliant 18-1 record it compiled in 2016 when the team reached the Suffolk County Team Tournament Round of 16. For one thing, the Monarchs are thin on experience. It doesn’t help, either, that Mercy has been bounced up from League VIII to League VII.

“It’s like going from Division III to Division I,” Clauberg said. “We’re playing the top teams in the county. The level of play is a lot higher, so every match is going to be a battle.”

Mercy does have a big player in its corner, though, in eighth-grader Rose Hayes, who played first singles last year as a freshman and went 25-6. The all-state player finished fourth in the county individual tournament.

“She’s the best player that ever played for me that wore a Mercy uniform,” Clauberg said. “I can’t debate that.”

“Her fundamentals are fantastic,” he continued. “When she does drills, it’s like textbook. Her form is impeccable. It’s just like perfection, a coach’s dream. It’s just so elegant.”

Clauberg knew Hayes was a special player back when he coached her when she was in elementary school.

“She was so determined not to make a mistake,” he said. “She could keep the ball in play better than the high school players could. It was unbelievable … She was just far above anybody I’ve ever seen. She was a first-grader. She was unbelievable.”

Mercy will also be relying on sophomore Kelsey Bundrick and juniors Jamie Densieski and Brooke Kappenberg.

The all-league Bundrick played third singles. Kappenberg, an all-division player, was slotted at first doubles. Densieski played fourth singles and third doubles.

But a good deal of the lineup remains to be ironed out. Said Clauberg, “I think we have a lot of work to do.”

Before the first ball is served in the first official match this season, teams play their own intra-team tournaments, in a sense. It’s a way to determine the pecking order of the singles lineup. That’s what Shoreham-Wading River (9-7) was involved in last week.

The way coach Debbie Lutjen arranged it, her players competed in a round-robin setup to form an initial “ladder.” From there, players engage in so-called challenge matches to further refine the team’s player rankings.

“So far all the matches have been ultra-competitive, which is really good for the team and good for the players because it makes them better,” Lutjen said. “It just shows how competitive the girls are.”

Lutjen said the competition is so tight that there are seven “legitimate” contenders for the starting four singles slots.

As Lutjen sees it, it’s a product of more players playing this summer than they had in the past. A direct correlation can be tied to Shoreham’s new courts, which were unveiled last year. It has also contributed to a nice turnout, with 14 varsity players and 14 junior varsity players.

As of last Thursday, one of the team’s nine seniors, Jillian Dinowitz, was holding the No. 1 spot. Dinowitz, an all-league player last year, was followed, in order, by eighth-grader Catherine Erb, senior Danielle Amato, junior Brianna Arabio, senior Alice Van Wickler, senior Jackie Colalillo and senior Kara Gately. Colalillo and Gately were all-league players and Van Wickler received the team’s most improved player award last year.

Also looking for a place in the lineup are: Carley Nicoletti, Valerie Facini, Mika Misawa, Madison Dimpflmaier, Krista Kozlowski, Sonia Joseph, Stephanie Searing and Eleanora Undrus.

Lutjen said any one of her top seven players could be successful at third or fourth singles, but two of those seven players will form a first doubles team. “First doubles is always a strong team, no matter who you’re playing, so you always want to have a strong first doubles team,” she said.

What Lutjen likes about the process of establishing a ladder through these preseason matches is it’s objective, based on wins and losses. She said, “You can’t argue with it.”

Riverhead coach Rose D’Orsogna did not return phone calls prior to the deadline.

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Photo caption: Brooke Kappenberg was an all-division first doubles player for Bishop McGann-Mercy last year. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)