Stonington girls bounce back and share ECC D-I tennis title with Woodstock

Killingly — Stonington's girls' tennis team isn't necessarily used to grinding out victories. Having won five straight and 13 of the last 14 Eastern Connecticut Conference divisional titles, the Bears have dominated, oftentimes displaying more grace, less grit.

Then came Saturday.

The ECC Division I title was on the line against Woodstock Academy, the team which ended Stonington's 63-match winning streak against league opponents, dating back to 2014, just last week.

And the Bears, who start six freshmen ... the Bears, who are without 2018 State Open champion Gabby Dellacono due to injury, found a way to win anyway, coming away with a 6-1 victory and a share of the ECC Division I regular-season championship.

"They rose to the occasion," Stonington coach George Crouse said. "It's a young team. They were shocked when they lost last time. We have six freshman that play ... they didn't realize."

"It's only taken us 19 years to get that win," Woodstock coach Ann Rathbone said of the Centaurs' 4-3 win on May 8, referring to the number of years Woodstock has been in the ECC. "We haven't even really been close, a little bit close but not really."

Rathbone paused before adding, "What is it they say? 'You don't want to poke a sleeping bear?' We did that. We knew they were coming today with everyone."

Stonington got singles wins from freshman Maddie Hamm at No. 1, senior Ainsley Johnstone at No. 2 and junior Alison Marseglia at No. 3.

The Bears (15-1, 5-1) also got a doubles sweep from the teams of Amelia Caron and Cassie Onorato, who won in three sets at No. 1, the freshman tandem of Chloe Morehouse and Katie Johnstone at No. 2 and another pair of freshmen at No. 3 in Grace Milne and Mia Lewandowski. The match was contested at Killingly High School.

Perhaps the gutsiest performance of the day came from Ainsley Johnstone, who has missed the last three weeks due to a painful bout with tennis elbow. Johnstone missed the match against Woodstock last week, forcing the Bears to shuffle their remaining singles lineup.

On Saturday, Johnstone returned, toppling Woodstock's Morgan Bassett 6-4, 6-1. Johnstone didn't have her usual strength behind all her shots, but got through the match, nevertheless.

"The past three weeks I've been going to an orthopedic (doctor) and he gave me some band exercises to do," said Johnstone, who said she does the exercises in school, sometimes under her desk. "It's definitely been hard not to play for three weeks, but you have to do what you have to do.

"I can hit a forehand really hard; I tried to use more slice and spinning (Saturday) rather than hitting it real hard."

Johnstone said Hamm has done a "great job" filling in for Dellacono in the No. 1 singles slot.

"We figured out how to adapt (this year), how to grow as a team," Johnstone said. "I love playing with Maddie. She's so happy, so fun to be around."

Hamm is unbeaten at No. 1 and will be the top seed entering this week's ECC singles tournament. That doesn't mean she's been undaunted, however.

"I've been really nervous," Hamm said. "It's been really tough this season. There's a lot of good competition. It's scary filling in for Gabby. It just kind of played out like that (with Hamm at No. 1 for the Bears). I worked really hard. I really wanted it.

"I love the team. This is the best team ever. Everybody's been really inclusive; they've been so welcoming."

Crouse, who has earned several personal milestones this season with his 500th win as girls' tennis coach and his 800th victory overall in boys' and girls' tennis, wasn't sure what to expect when the season started. The Bears were the Class S state tournament runners-up last season, finishing 18-2.

Crouse credited the seniors for their leadership, as well as assistant coach Glen Herbert.

"We beat Fitch the other day 7-0 and I had an inkling we had improved during the season," Crouse said. "We played really well (Saturday). Woodstock is an excellent team. We're an excellent team. It was a very, very close match. Woodstock is a worthy co-champ."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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