East Lyme beats Foran to reach Class M state final

East Lyme freshman Sophie Shi returns the ball during her 6-0, 6-3 singles victory on Thursday. The top-seeded Vikings swept the singles and advanced to today's Class M state final with a 5-2 win over Foran.
East Lyme freshman Sophie Shi returns the ball during her 6-0, 6-3 singles victory on Thursday. The top-seeded Vikings swept the singles and advanced to today's Class M state final with a 5-2 win over Foran. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

East Lyme - Headed into Thursday's match in the state semifinals, it had been a little bit of a rough week for Joan Li, East Lyme High School's No. 1 singles player and the face of a singles lineup that didn't drop a single set in the regular season.

Li tweaked her left knee in the Eastern Connecticut Conference singles semifinals last Friday during the middle of a first-set tiebreaker with Stonington's Chloe Slater. Li lost the tiebreaker and the match.

Then, Li lost again Wednesday in her team's 5-2 victory over Ellington in the state quarterfinals.

"I was kind of like scared," Li said of how to approach Thursday, when a berth in the Class M state championship was on the line. "'What if I start mis-hitting a lot?'

"I have a tendency of overthinking. That's me."

Only then there was Li, playing like Li, beating Foran of Milford's Gabi Verdura 6-0, 6-1, and leading a singles sweep, like always.

And this time it led the Vikings into the state championship match, as the top-seeded Vikings defeated No. 5 Foran 5-2. East Lyme (18-0) will meet No. 2 Hand of Madison (18-1) for the title at 3 p.m. today at Yale University in New Haven.

East Lyme's only other trip to the finals came in 2007, a 5-0 rain-shortened loss to Greenwich in Class L which came before the arrival of Li and before the arrival of this year's heralded freshman class.

Li, a junior, was joined in winning singles matches against Foran by freshmen Sophia Shi, Sherry Yang and Melinda Li, Joan's sister. Only Melinda Li needed a third set for victory.

Also picking up a point for the Vikings was the No. 3 doubles team of Samantha Hart and Julia Sokolovska.

"It's definitely been a fun year," Joan Li said of the addition of the freshmen. "They definitely spice up the team a little more. They're freshmen. They make it funnier."

The incoming freshman class was the object of Li's overthinking during the winter time.

"I spent all winter getting anxious," Li said. "'What happens if I get beat by my own sister?'"

But after the initial challenge matches, when the freshmen proved they belonged on the singles ladder, the Vikings settled in for an unbeaten regular season at 15-0.

Senior Liz Miller, last year's No. 2 singles player, made the transition to No. 1 doubles, joined by freshman Katherine Wu. The pair won the ECC doubles title last week. Miller is one of three seniors, along with Hart and Sagune Sakya at No. 2 doubles.

The top three singles players were named first team All-ECC, while the fourth, Melinda Li, made it to the semifinals of the ECC tournament.

"They're all fighters, they don't give up," East Lyme coach Laurie Privett said of her team, while watching her first doubles squad play the third set against Foran. "That's a lot of tennis all these days in a row.

"All year long I've been trying to convince them how good they are, telling them 'make sure you think positive, let that carry you through.' I try to get them to be aggressive. I tell them, 'when you're on the green, you're mean.' But they're such nice girls, they don't buy it."

The freshmen were friends entering the season and Yang said being there for each other as they tried out for the team made them all a little bit braver.

"It was intimidating at first," said Yang, who beat Foran's Kathryn Amenta 6-3, 7-5 at No. 3 singles. "But it was great to get to do it together. ... I think we have a very good team. We have a great chance at finals. If we win, it would be great for future years to have that confidence."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

East Lyme's Joan Li returns the ball during her 6-0, 6-1 victory over Foran's Gabi Verdura on Thursday. Li and the top-seeded Vikings advanced to today's Class M state final with a 5-2 win.
East Lyme's Joan Li returns the ball during her 6-0, 6-1 victory over Foran's Gabi Verdura on Thursday. Li and the top-seeded Vikings advanced to today's Class M state final with a 5-2 win. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
East Lyme's Liz Miller returns the ball from the baseline while doubles teammate Katherine Wu watches from the net during their No. 1 doubles match on Thursday. Miller-Wu lost 7-5, 2-6, 7-6 (4), but the Vikings advanced to the Class M state final with a 5-2 win over Foran.
East Lyme's Liz Miller returns the ball from the baseline while doubles teammate Katherine Wu watches from the net during their No. 1 doubles match on Thursday. Miller-Wu lost 7-5, 2-6, 7-6 (4), but the Vikings advanced to the Class M state final with a 5-2 win over Foran. Dana Jensen/ The Day Buy Photo
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