Bears get their title
Stonington wins first Class S girls' tennis state championship
New Haven - Mollie Kam's utter calm in the No. 4 singles match, a back-and-forth paced by lobs, belied the sense of urgency her coach was feeling on the sidelines about 5 o'clock Friday afternoon at Yale University.
Kam, a Stonington High School senior, won the first set of her match against Weston's Kristen Rivera and was playing out the final points of the second, on her way to a 6-2, 6-3 victory. Meanwhile, longtime Stonington girls' tennis coach George Crouse, looking for a good place to see, wedged himself between the court's outer fence and the trees which line the area around the playing surface.
"Is that it? Is that it? Is that it?" Crouse repeated himself, as he came flying out of the trees to a celebration. "We're champs!"
It was Kam who rang up the fourth point for Stonington in the Class S state championship match against Weston, giving the Bears an insurmountable 4-1 lead on their way to the first title in program history.
Second-seeded Stonington beat No. 12 Weston by a final margin of 4-3, finishing the season undefeated at 19-0 and becoming the first Eastern Connecticut Conference tennis team to win a CIAC-sponsored title.
Stonington was playing in its eighth straight final and ninth overall without a victory, falling to Weston in the final on five occasions from 2007-11.
"We lost three years in a row and I watched my sister (Emilie) lose four years in a row," Stonington senior and No. 1 singles player Annika Burgess said. "This year, I knew we were able to do it, matching up our records and their records. We did it for ourselves and for our coach. … He's got his glasses on."
Crouse, who has coached either the boys' or girls' tennis teams at Stonington since 1973, including coaching all four of his children, picked up his 700th career victory between the two earlier in the season. He will head to Des Moines, Iowa, later this month as a finalist for national coach of the year.
Was he, as Burgess suggested, a little emotional behind his sunglasses?
"Wouldn't you be? After 40 years wouldn't you be," said a smiling Crouse, who after the victory found his cell phone battery had died, needing to borrow someone else's phone to call his wife Ann with the news. "It's like winning the lottery after you bought tickets for 40 years."
Joining Kam in clinching the victory for the Bears were No. 2 singles player Chloe Slater, who never lost a state tournament match in her career, and the No. 2 and 3 doubles teams.
Slater, down 5-2 in the second set, topped Sarah Greisman 6-1, 7-5. At No. 2 doubles, Meg Rolfe and Emily Gardiner blanked Bari Blitzer and Abbey Roth 6-0, 6-0 and at No. 3 doubles, Taylor Startz and Gina Feliciano finished with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Sarah Finkel and Lindsey Kapel.
The doubles teams won first, then Slater for a 3-1 lead. Then Kam.
"I try not to get too stressed on the court," Kam said. "I'm so excited. It's always an accomplishment to get here, but we were very determined this year. It's great to go undefeated the whole season. We have T-shirts that say 'undefeated regular season.' Now we're undefeated the whole season."
Stonington lost just two points during the regular season, beating Waterford and East Lyme by 6-1 margins. The rest of the scores were 7-0. In the state tournament the Bears followed with wins over Rocky Hill (7-0), Old Lyme (6-1) and Westbrook (7-0) to get back to the final.
Against Weston, Burgess lost to defending State Open champion Kimmy Guerin, 6-2, 6-0. Caroline Kam, a sophomore and Molly's younger sister, fell to Andi Rosenblatt 7-5, 6-4. The No. 1 doubles team of Hannah Fabianski and Emily Buxton lost a two-and-a-half-hour match to McKenzie Murray and Eugenie Portner, 7-6 (6), 3-6, (12-10).
The Bears' No. 2 and 3 doubles teams were undefeated in team play this year. All four players are sophomores.
"We know we're not the No. 1 player on the team, but we have as much of a job as anyone," Rolfe said.
As for Slater, who also led the Bears to a championship berth during field hockey season?
"My assistant coach said if you had a million dollars to bet on someone, Chloe would be it," Crouse said. "… What do you say after eight years? I told them you could win, but you have to compete. And they did. I'm the Marv Levy (Buffalo Bills coach who made four straight Super Bowls without winning) of the tennis world. I was until today."