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Bears hold serve in early matchup of ECC's finest

By Vickie Fulkerson

Publication: The Day

Published April 06. 2013 4:00AM

Stonington - The circumstances would seem to demand everyone's best: a matchup between two high school girls' tennis teams, East Lyme and Stonington, which went undefeated in the regular season last year and reached the finals of the state tournament.

Only it was the first week of April.

"It was stressful for both coaches and the kids, too," Stonington coach George Crouse said. "Nobody's had many practices. You're operating on what you're bringing in, what skills they already have.

"We were fortunate today; we had a little more depth than them at this point."

Stonington swept East Lyme 7-0 Friday afternoon, the first of two regular-season meetings between the teams, behind a captivating three-set victory from Annika Burgess at No. 1 singles.

In a matchup between all-state honorees who were both also unbeaten in the regular season last year, Burgess outlasted East Lyme senior Joan Li 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. Burgess is the defending ECC singles champion. Li, meanwhile, had never played a three-set match before, but was up a break on Burgess in the third set.

"I was nervous throughout the entire match," said Burgess, who could finally breathe easier when Li, up 40-15 at one point, double-faulted the last two points in the deciding game. "I was tight the entire match. She's the best person I'm going to play this year; she's a great competitor."

"It was nerve-wracking," Li said.

Stonington (2-0) also got singles wins from Chloe Slater, Caroline Kam and Mollie Kam. Caroline Kam, at No. 3, missed the latter part of last season with mono, her return strengthening the Bears' singles ladder.

Hannah Fabianski and Emily Buxton won at No. 1 doubles, followed by Meg Rolfe and Emily Gardiner at No. 2 and Taylor Startz and Gina Feliciano at No. 3.

East Lyme's No. 2 and No. 3 singles players, Sophia Shi and Melinda Li, are sophomores, as is half of the first doubles team, Katherine Wu. Wu helped win the ECC doubles title last year when a strong group of freshmen invigorated the Vikings.

"Nerves were definitely a part of it," East Lyme coach Laurie Zrenda said of the loss to Stonington. "We didn't have a chance to get matches under our belt and build confidence. ... It's almost like last year when they didn't believe it. You almost had to show them on paper: this is how many matches we've won, this is how good we are."

Zrenda called the first singles match fun, with both players having the opportunity to take part in such a competitive match this early in the season.

Burgess trailed 3-1 in the third set before winning three straight games, serving for the 4-3 lead. Li had an advantage in that game when Burgess double-faulted, but Burgess got it to deuce and her next serve was to the outside corner, crossing up Li.

Li got it to 4-4, but Burgess held serve and then broke Li, running her from side to side on one point, for the match.

"I did relax a little. My serve got stronger as the match went on," said Burgess, who played basketball for the first time this winter, which she said helped her conditioning. "I owe the third set to basketball."

"She was a little impatient," Crouse said of Burgess. "She had to set up her shots a little better. But it's early; the things she was trying to do today will work later in the season and (Li) was very, very tough."

East Lyme is the reigning ECC Large Division champion, while Stonington, under Crouse, who picked up his 701st career win in boys' and girls' tennis during his coaching career, was last year's Medium Division champ.

The teams play again on May 3 at East Lyme.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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