When Rob Kelly became the girls’ tennis coach at Kearny High School earlier this year, he knew he was inheriting a solid squad.
“I walked into a good situation,” said Kelly, who also coaches hockey and boys’ tennis at the school. “Alex Zalewski built the program and we had a good relationship. When Alex left, the girls were familiar with me. I think I was more excited than apprehensive. I guess there was a little hesitation in how I would act around them.”
Kelly was the assistant to Zalewski last year. When Zalewski left for another teaching and coaching position near his home down the Jersey Shore, it left Kelly to take over and hit the ground running.
“I just needed everyone to loosen up and everything would be smooth sailing,” Kelly said. “A lot of the girls were on the team last season.”
The Kardinals lost in the Hudson County Tournament semifinals to Bayonne and the girls felt that they shouldn’t have lost to the Bees.
“It left a bad taste in their mouths,” Kelly said. “It left a sour taste. I think they figured that this was their opportunity this year to get it done. Coming in from Day One, you could see that the girls were ready. We had a lot of talent coming back from last year. We also had a good turnout from girls who were interested.”
With 30 interested players, Kelly had to split practices, having a session strictly for novice tennis players right after school and another for those with past tennis experience.
It also enabled some of Kelly’s top performers to get to Kearny from North Bergen, where they attend High Tech High School of the Hudson County Schools of Techology.
High Tech does not have any varsity sports of its own, so any aspiring student/athlete from that school must return to his/her home district to play sports.
Leading the list of returnees is senior Zuzanna Lisek, the Kardinals’ first singles performer who ended up winning the Hudson County Individual Tourney at first singles.
“She was undefeated for us,” Kelly said. “She was fantastic. I never had to worry about her. She made a commitment from Day One and I appreciate that.”
Lisek was named the Hudson County Player of the Year for her efforts.
Kelly believes Lisek could play college tennis.
“She’s good enough to do it, but I don’t know if she wants to,” Kelly said.
The Kardinals’ No. 2 player is junior Jillian Boyle, who is one of those players who attends High Tech. Boyle posted a 17-5 record this season.
“Regardless of what’s been going on, Jill always has a positive outlook,” Kelly said. “She’s never in a bad mood and makes everyone feel good. She also makes everyone believe she’s going to win the match.”
The top two singles players were not surprises. The third singles player was.
Freshman Mia Eid stepped in to the No. 3 singles role. Another High Tech student, Eid came on like gangbusters since the start of practice.
“She’s a shy, quiet little girl,” Kelly said. “She told me she wanted to be the third singles player, so I gave her a shot. Everything she did was flawless. She makes it look so easy.”
Eid also won the county tournament at third singles and posted an overall mark of 18-1.
The first singles team of sophomore Karen Uquillas and senior Sofia Raza learned the ins and outs of playing doubles tennis and took to it quite well.
“They were undefeated,” Crudele said.
The second singles consisted of three girls playing the two spots.
Senior Emely Conza, junior Paulina Tyszka and junior Claudia Sierzputowski shared the second singles spot all season.
“We got a chance to play with three different pairs there,” Kelly said.
Others that got playing time were junior Leyla Vasquez and freshman Sabena Raza, Sofia’s younger sister.
“I gave them the opportunity to play and practice every day with the varsity,” Kelly said. “They got some good experience.”
The result was a 21-4 team record and the Kardinals won the Hudson County Tournament championship as a team. They crowned three individual champions at first singles, third singles and first doubles and won the title as a team. That’s a pretty impressive campaign for the Kardinals.
“We really did want to win the county,” Kelly said. “That was the goal. I couldn’t have asked for a better first season. I’m ecstatic.”