Point, game, set, match, season!
And what a season it was for the Shoreham-Wading River boys tennis team. It surely was a season to remember and a remarkably swift turnaround that is rarely seen beyond a Hollywood screen.
Before Joelmaia Carrasco took over as SWR’s coach last year, the Wildcats had won one team match in the previous four years, he said. Last year the team rebounded tremendously, posting a 6-6 record and being narrowly edged out of a playoff spot by Southold. This year saw even greater improvement as SWR captured a Suffolk County small schools championship that would have seemed unthinkable just a couple of years earlier.
“This is something you could write a book about,” said Carrasco.
Third-seeded SWR nailed down that county title May 24 with a 4-3 triumph over host Bayport-Blue Point, the No. 1 seed and League III champion.
Ray Hidaka, an eighth-grade first singles player, secured the victory with his 6-2, 6-2 defeat of Shane Duerr in the final match to be completed.
School officials could not say how many county titles SWR (16-4) has won.
“Words can’t even describe how happy I was winning the county final,” said SWR senior Jason Lutz, a 6-3, 6-1 winner over Mathew Decatur. He continued: “To be where we are now is super exciting. This is what I dreamed of.”
SWR’s dream season ended the following day with a 5-0 loss to Wheatley in the Long Island final at Anthony Casamento Park in Bay Shore.
Hidaka (18-2) said he was unaware of the team score while playing his match in the final. “I thought we were losing, honestly,” he said. “I didn’t know what was happening.”
Hidaka found out when he walked off the court following his win and was met by happy teammates.
“They were saying we won, and I was so happy when I heard that,” he said. “That was one of the best moments of my life.”
Bayport (15-1) had beaten SWR twice during the regular season, 4-3 and 5-2. In this third meeting between the teams, Carrasco said SWR needed wins in fourth singles and third doubles in order to beat Bayport, “and that’s what we did.”
Fourth singles player Nikolaos Chantis, a sophomore, topped J.T. Swan, 6-2, 6-0. The third doubles pairing of freshman Christian Baas and sophomore Lucas Portuese were 6-3, 6-4 winners over Andrew Brooks and Kieran Schug.
“You don’t just need superstars,” Carrasco said. “You need a supporting cast, and none of this would have been possible without some talent. You need your talent, but then you need your role players.”
Third singles player Erik Epp (16-4), the senior class salutatorian, captains the team along with Lutz. SWR’s lineup also included seniors Craig Jablonski and Jayden Lavarado at first doubles, and sophomores Travis Finnegan and Dongkai Zhang at second doubles.
Last year SWR had 10 varsity players, just enough to fill a lineup, and its junior varsity team had only seven players. This year over 30 players tried out for the two teams, said Carrasco, the Suffolk Small Schools Coach of the Year. “The winning made a difference,” he said.
Lutz (18-2), a four-year varsity player, can appreciate the change. He experienced some of the lean times, saying SWR went 0-12 his freshman season.
“Our new coach, it can’t be understated the impact he had on the team,” Lutz said. “The change in culture the two seasons he’s been here, it’s been unreal.”
Hidaka played first singles last year. “Ray, as a player, obviously he’s special,” Carrasco said. “To have someone that good, it helps the team believe in the process.”
To reach the county final, SWR defeated No. 6 Port Jefferson and No. 2 Elwood/John Glenn. Lutz said the 6-1 win over Glenn “gave us a lot more confidence going into the Bayport match that we could do this.”
So, how was SWR able to execute such an astounding turnaround?
Practice, practice, practice.
“I could say it was just a hundred percent the hard work we all put in,” Lutz said. “We put in the work over the summer, a lot of offseason work. The coach told us: ‘This is one of those teams, a special team. We have a lot of good guys and we could do this this year.’ ”
And then they did.
Said Carrasco, “This was something that I’ll never forget.”