For such a big achievement, the soft-spoken Rose Hayes really didn’t have much to say about it.
It wasn’t until after the fact when Hayes learned that she had become the first singles player from Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School to ever win a division championship.
“Pretty cool,” she told reporters.
And pretty darn impressive on multiple counts. Start with the fact that Hayes is an eighth-grader. And then consider that she was facing Eastport-South Manor senior Jackie Bukzin, the defending Suffolk County champion who had won the Division IV title the past three years. Finally, look at the way Hayes played in Wednesday’s final at Shoreham-Wading River High School. In a match that saw high-quality tennis, Hayes’ uncanny ability to get to balls that looked beyond her reach served her well as she stuck out a 7-5, 7-5 triumph.
“She just really is just a fighter,” Mercy coach Mike Clauberg said. “She refuses to lose. She’ll run every ball down, any ball that’s impossible to get, she just never stops.”
Last year Hayes became the first Mercy singles player to reach a division final since 1982 when Colleen Clark lost to Mattituck’s Beth Christy in a tiebreaker, according to Clauberg. In last year’s final, Bukzin took down Hayes, 6-0, 6-0. Hayes has since learned how to beat Bukzin, who will play for Amherst College in Massachusetts.
“Jackie has so many weapons,” Clauberg said. “You just got to prepare for all the weapons that she has. She’s going to hit slice and dices. She’s going to come attack at the net. You know, you turn your back for one second and Jackie’s going to put the ball away on you. So, it’s just a matter of being prepared for all the weapons that she has.”
Both players entered the final with only one loss on the season — to each other. It helped Hayes that she won her final league match against Bukzin, 7-6 (7-1), 4-6, 6-3.
“I knew if I did it before, I could do it again,” said the top-seeded Hayes, who raised her season record to 16-1 and her two-year varsity mark to 41-7.
Bukzin (11-2), seeded second, ran into serving difficulties, particularly in the first set. She committed three double faults in the second game alone as Hayes shot out to a 5-1 lead. For the match, Bukzin put in 54 percent of her first serves and committed nine double faults. Hayes had only one double fault and her first-serve percentage was 65.
Hayes was under no illusion, though. She knows what it’s like playing Bukzin. “It’s always hard,” she said. “It’s never easy.”
Sure enough, Bukzin dug down and fought back. She outpointed Hayes, 16-4, to draw even at 5-5 before Hayes closed out the set.
“It’s a pretty physical match,” Bukzin said. “You really have to push yourself.”
The second set went back and forth. Bukzin took the first two games, Hayes grabbed the next three, Bukzin the three after that and Hayes the final four.
Hayes’ hustle won her a huge game-winning point. With the game at deuce, Hayes raced forward to get to one of Bukzin’s difficult drop shots. Hayes struck the ball off the tape, popping it over the net for the point, knotting the set at 5-5. Bukzin, helpless to do anything about it, wore a look of disbelief on her face.
“You just got to put a racket out and hope for the best,” said Hayes.
Clauberg knows full well how effectively Hayes can cover the court. “I went on the court one time with Rose and played one game with her and I swore I would never get on the court with her again because she just ran me around like a rag doll and I was pretty much done in two seconds,” he said. “I needed an AED [defibrillator]. She’s just really phenomenal at seeing the ball and just getting to balls. Her effort is just a coach’s dream.”
The next game went to deuce as well and was decided when Bukzin, at the net, knocked the ball into the net.
Hayes won five of the eight games that went to deuce, including the final one. That ended when Bukzin hit a ball long. It was called out and Hayes was the new champion.
Hayes had dropped only one game in the four tournament matches she played prior to the final.
What has changed in Hayes’ game since last year?
“She’s definitely more consistent,” said Bukzin, who is 4-2 in her career against Hayes. “She handled my slice a lot better.”
Bukzin put away 30 winners, but also made 16 unforced errors. Hayes capitalized on them.
“At the end of the day, you know, they’re both great players,” Clauberg said. “On any given day, anyone can win and today was Rose’s day.”
Photo caption: Eighth-grader Rose Hayes is the first Bishop McGann-Mercy singles player to win a division championship. (Credit: Bob Liepa)