Wild Card Knights Show Their Stuff, Win Title
West Essex girls tennis team's tough schedule bears fruit
West Essex girls tennis head coach Barbara Bruchac was on pins and needles before the state tournament seedings came out.
The Knights, who received the ninth seed, took that wild card and ran with it as West Essex captured the Group II North II state championship by defeating Madison, 3-2.
The Knights season would end in South Jersey with a loss in the first round of the Group II championships, dropping the contest to Governor Livingston. West Essex finished with a 11-12 record.
The Knights were 2-7 at the state cutoff date. A couple of years ago, West Essex had no chance of playing post-season matches.
But in the last couple of years, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association allowed under .500 teams to bid for a wild card spot in the state playoffs. One of the only conditions was that the section did not have at least 16 teams with a .500 or more than .500 record.
With the Group II North II state section not having at least 16 schools eligible, it dipped into the wild card bidders that included West Essex.
With the realignment to the Super Essex Conference, the Knights were placed in the top division so West Essex had a large dish of games against some of the best teams in North Jersey and the state in Millburn, Newark Academy, Montclair Kimberley, Glen Ridge and Livingston.
"Those are all top 20 schools," said Bruchac. "I think the conference is one of the top conferences in the state."
Bruchac is not a fan of the realignment that is in its second season. "I don't think it is a fair playing field," she said.
But while she is not happy overall with the realignment, it definitely had them battled-tested for the state playoffs.
Against the Dodgers, the Knights took the first singles and both doubles matches, Carly Agrifolio defeated Madison's Emily Rutland, 6-2, 6-1. In first doubles, Knights Blair Shulman and Lynnli Wang had a tough time in the first set, winning 7-6, but dominated the Madison pair of Jessica Driscoll and Dana Ranney in the second set, 6-0.
The West Essex second doubles pair of Amanda Alhout and Stephanie Rosen dropped Madison's Kate Kim and Ivy Schuckman, 6-3, 6-4.
Winning the state sectional title made those losses to Super Essex Conference powers just sort of an afterthought. "In the end that probably prepared us better for the state tournament," said Bruchac, who admitted that she did not know if they were going to get a wild card entry. "I was very nervous."
The West Essex head coach said that all the hard work going up against the tough teams resulted in the state sectional championship.
"It was all worthwhile," said Bruchac, adding that the team became cohesive during the run. "They really drew together for a common purpose."
Even though they received the ninth seed, West Essex would pick off lower seeded teams one after another, beating eighth-seeded Fort Lee (5-0), top-seeded McNair (5-0) and rival fifth-seeded Caldwell (3-2) before defeating Madison.
For next season, Bruchac will have a little bit of a rebuilding with the graduation of seniors Agrifolio, who was first singles, third singles Lacy Tell and first doubles member Lynnli Wang along with Britt Berman.
While Agrifolio was 10-13, she faced some of the best tennis players at first singles. "I think Carly worked hard off-season and saw great improvement in her play," said Bruchac, who added that it was difficult for Agrifolio to face some of the best tennis players in the state. "I think that was tough mentally for her."
The West Essex head coach said that the senior first singles player, who is looking to play at a Division III college school, gained confidence as the season progressed and that helped significantly in the state playoffs.
While Niki Entin was 7-16 at second singles, Tell also improved as the season progressed after moving up from doubles last season to third singles this season. And it showed in the state semi-finals match against Caldwell where Tell defeated Caldwell's Sara Lobdell, 6-1, 7-5. Tell had lost to the same girl in the preseason.
The top record for the Knights was the second doubles team of Alhout and Rosen, which was 12-7, while the first doubles pair of Shulman and senior Wang went 10-11 for the 2010 season.