TABERNACLE TOWNSHIP — The Mainland Regional girls tennis team was expected to be in “rebuilding mode” this season after losing five starters to graduation.
But the Mustangs certainly didn’t show any signs of inexperience when it mattered most Tuesday.
The young Mustang team, made up entirely of underclassmen, retained its composure in a few close sets to sweep singles and add a win in second doubles as they defeated top-seeded Seneca 4-1 in the South Jersey Group III final for their first South Jersey title since 2010.
“That’s what they’ve been doing recently,” Mainland Regional head coach Kathy Yohe said. “Just really fighting, digging deep and winning some tough matches. I couldn’t be prouder.”
The second-seeded Mustangs (9-4) advanced to face the Central Group III champion at 9 a.m. Thursday at Mercer County Park in West Windsor Township. Mainland defeated third-seeded Cumberland Regional 4-1 in the South Jersey Group III semifinal Friday to advance to the final.
Sophomore first singles player Meena Mandalapu put the Mustangs ahead with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Seneca’s Jessica Errigo, before Mainland’s third singles freshman Claudia Mairone gave the Mustangs a two-point lead with a 6-0, 6-2 win against Taryn Atmore.
The second doubles pair of sophomore Christa Carideo and freshman Sophia Rha held off Seneca’s Devon Cassise and Brittany Farrell 6-0, 5-7, 6-2 to clinch the title for the Mustangs.
“We were talking to our coaches and the said if we won we would win the match,” Rha said. “So it’s kind of more pressure, but it’s also more motivation. We feel really good about it,” Carideo said. “We’re very proud of ourselves for winning. They were tough opponents.”
In second singles, junior Jennifer Margolis defeated Natalie Narkiewicz in a super tiebreaker 6-7 (7-4), 6-4, 10-7 to add another hard-earned point for the Mustangs and end the match.
Last season, the Mustangs made it to the semifinals before losing to Absegami 3-2. The Mustangs fielded a young squad this season with limited playoff experience.
Seneca brought a more experienced group into the match with one senior, five juniors and one sophomore.
On Thursday, Seneca defeated Ocean City 3-2 to advance to the final. Mainland lost to Ocean City in its sixth match of the season on its way to a 3-4 start.
That start is now a distant memory to the Mustangs, who have earned their first group championship since 2010 when they were part of Group IV.
“It feels great,” Yohe said. “This was definitely not expected at the beginning of the season. We were in a rebuilding year. We started with some losses in the beginning. I’m really, really proud of this group.”
“It feels great because last year we had a tough loss in the semis, so it’s really nice to be back,” Mandalapu said. “This year was a little unsure because we had a lot of new people coming in, but I guess next year we’re gonna be really good.”
Singles—Meena Mandalapu M d. Jessica Errigo 6-2, 6-2; Jennifer Margolis M d. Natalie Narkiewicz 6-7 (7-4), 6-4, 10-7; Claudia Mairone M d. Taryn Atmore 6-0, 6-2
Doubles—Tori Felt-Yvette Kurian S d. Christina Collings-Emily Mack 6-1, 5-7, 6-3; Christa Carideo M d. Sophia Rha d. Devon Cassise-Brittany Farrell 6-0, 5-7, 6-2 .
Records—Mainland 9-4; Seneca 9-6.