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Friends Academy girls tennis' Cinderella run ends in small schools final

Isabella Sha of Friends Academy returns the ball

Isabella Sha of Friends Academy returns the ball during the Division 1 finals at the New York State High School Girls Tennis Team Championships held at the United States Tennis Center, Flushing Meadows Park on Fri. Nov. 5, 2021. Credit: Errol Anderson

The Friends Academy girls tennis team penned a true Cinderella story this season.

The Quakers, playing their regular season in a conference with larger schools, lost 10 of their first 11 matches. Then, as their chances to make the postseason looked slim, things started to click. They won their last two regular-season matches and never looked back en route to Friday’s NYSPHSAA small school girls team championships at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Friends had one more scintillating chapter left — a 3-2 semifinal win over previously undefeated Section III champion Oneida — but, like the folk tale, the clock hit midnight for the Quakers in the championship match. And hit it hard.

Bryam Hills of Section I completed a perfect 22-0 season with a 5-0 victory over Friends.

The overpowering finals performance was headlined by senior Alyssa Margolin’s 6-1, 6-1 first-singles win over Friends junior Isabella Sha. Margolin is returning from a back injury and did not play in Byram Hills’ semifinal win, but returned for the final — and made the team that much stronger — because "we felt we could win a semifinal without her and we needed her all to beat someone as good as Sha," Byram Hills coach Mike Racanelli said.

"This final was tough and we dropped the ball a little bit," Quakers coach Owen Kassimir said. "The moment might have caught us by surprise a little. Everyone played a little tentative early in their final match."

Friends (7-11) made enormous progress during the season while competing with bigger schools. Hamstrung by injury and inexperience, the Quakers lost lopsided matches early. Some players improved and others got healthy and the matches started to get closer. "We went from losing 7-0 and 6-1 to losing 5-2 and 4-3 and we turned the corner when they understood what it would take to reach [a postseason]," Kassimir said.

That’s when the six-game winning streak started. "It was a slow start for us, but we just kept getting better until we became this team," said Sha, who missed early matches with a shoulder injury and won her semifinal match 6-1, 6-0 behind a strong serve and forehand. The title match between Sha and Margolin was a repeat of the state singles semifinals, also won by Margolin.

It was a strong day for the second doubles tandem of sophomore Eva Sun and freshman Ericka Na. They won their semifinal match 6-0, 6-1 and were the only Friends entry to win a set in the final, falling 5-7, 6-4, 10-6.

"I like to play the baseline and she’s a great finisher at the net," Sun said.

What seemed a long way off only a few weeks ago proved beyond the Quakers’ imaginiations when they walked into the National Tennis Center.

"Getting to play here? I can’t believe it — it’s insane," freshman Teah Login said. "It makes this really special."

Login played at second singles instead of third because one of the Quakers did not meet the city vaccination requirement to play at the Queens venue. She won her semifinal match 6-2, 6-0 before dropping her match in the final, 6-0, 6-1.

Friends again will play next season in a conference with large schools, but has this experience under its belt and returns all but one player from its starting lineup.

"This season was good and making it to the final was amazing," Kassimir said. "We have had this experience and maybe it will drive us to get back."

NYSPHSAA DIVISION 2 GIRLS TENNIS TEAM CHAMPIONSHIPS
(at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens)

Semifinals

Friends Academy 3, Oneida 2

First singles: Sha (FA) def. Geroge (O) 6-1, 6-0; Second singles: Login (FA) def. Campanie (O) 6-2, 6-0; Third singles: Curro (O) def. Zuckerbot (FA) 6-1, 6-2; First Doubles: Albro and Myatt (O) def. Overstrom and R. Na (FA) 1-6, 6-4, 10-8; Second doubles: Sun and E. Na (FA) def. Caroli and Harris (O, 6-0, 6-1.

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