Phil Ritchie was out to prove something this year.
After missing most of last season with a broken wrist, the St. Augustine Prep junior found himself in the third singles spot on the Hermits’ tennis team.
His response? A 27-2 individual record to lead the team to a South Jersey Non-Public A title.
Ritchie is The Press Tennis Player of the Year.
“I was very happy with how I played (this season),” said Ritchie, 17, of Hammonton. “I played a lot over the winter.”
The road to recovery wasn’t a short one, however. According to St. Augustine coach Chas Berenato, Ritchie would noticeably favor his left wrist and opt for backhand slices to avoid stress on it.
During an indoor tournament at Medford Lakes in February, it was clear the wrist was 100 percent.
“As soon as I saw him playing indoors and using his left hand, I knew that he was going to have a great year,” Berenato said. “He was hitting the ball exceptionally well.”
The junior showed he wasn’t a typical third singles player May 2 at Vineland. He beat teammate Vince Coiro in the championship round of the Cape-Atlantic League tournament. It was the first time a third-singles player won the tournament.
“We just had a very strong team from top to bottom,” Ritchie said. “Everybody was able to push each other to get better.”
Ritchie said one of his biggest improvements this season was in playing a more offensive game.
“Last year, I played pretty defensively,” Ritchie said. “I didn’t come to the net as much. This year, I won many points at the net.”
When he’s not on the court, Ritchie likes to hang out with friends at the beach or play basketball. If he finds himself in front of a TV, his favorite shows to watch are “NCIS” and “S.W.A.T.”
In the past year, however, those moments have been a rarity as Ritchie has dedicated most of his time away from school on the court.
“I tried to play at least two hours a day,” Ritchie said. “That was the goal.”
The junior added that even if homework took a while, he’d stick to his two-hour minimum late into the night. He’d sometimes be at the middle school courts in Hammonton until 10 p.m.
Ritchie first picked up a racket when he was 8. He says he never gets tired of learning about the game, and that desire for knowledge is what keeps him going.
“You keep learning more and more,” Ritchie said. “Once you get to a certain level, there’s always someone way better.
“You can just keep growing. There’s no limit, and that’s what I really like about it.”
Coach of the Year Team of the Year
St. Augustine Prep coach Chas Berenato knew he had a special group this season.
The Hermits’ only loss of the season came from Delbarton in the Non-Public A state final, which they reached by beating Christian Brothers Academy for their first South Jersey Non-Public A title since 2011.
Berenato is The Press Tennis Coach of the Year, and the Hermits are the Team of the Year.
The second-year coach was impressed by the work ethic of every single member of his team.
“They never stopped trying to get better,” Berenato said.
“The whole team dedicated a lot of time — at least 21/2 hours (a day), six days a week — (to getting better). They practiced every day through spring break.”
Berenato graduated from St. Augustine in 2014. A four-year player for the Hermits, he went on to play at La Salle University.
Back in high school, he lived down the street from the Ritchie family and has known brothers Phil and Rob since they were 8. He gave them some tennis pointers early on and later developed a close relationship with former Hermits coach Alex Pracher when the Ritchies began their high school playing careers. Pracher even let Berenato get involved with the team.
Before taking the St. Augustine coaching job, Berenato coached at West Chester Country Club (Pennsylvania), Westhampton Country Club (New York) and Atlantic City’s Golf & Tennis World. Hermits second-singles player Michael Giunta was a regular at Golf & Tennis World for lessons.
For the coach, there were quite a few moments to be proud of this year. One of them was the CAL Tournament in Vineland. The finals were all Hermits — Ritchie and Vince Coiro in singles, and Casey Burhanna-Conor Franz and Reilly Burhanna (Casey’s brother)-Rob Ritchie in doubles.
It was the first time in tournament history that both finals featured players from one school.
“They all believed in how good they were,” Berenato said of his finalists. “When they got to the CAL (Tournament), and they were playing against their teammates, they were expecting to win.
“My second doubles (team) at the time was expecting to win and my third singles was expecting to win just because they know it’s possible from (our) practices.”
“That was a very awesome feeling,” Phil Ritchie. “We all work very hard, and it kind of just showed that we proved ourselves to be the best in the CAL.”
For Berenato, the moment he places at the top of the list was seeing his team compete at a high level against Christian Brothers in the sectional final and against Delbarton in the state final in a span of three days.
“No one on the team had gotten to play in a state championship before,” Berenato said. “So you can imagine after having a big win against CBA, a close 3-2 victory, that there would be a little bit of a letdown going into Delbarton, but there wasn’t.
“They played even better in that match.”
The Hermits will lose just three seniors to graduation. Both Ritchies, Coiro and Casey Burhanna will all return next year.
Now that they’ve finally gotten over the obstacle of a sectional title, they have their eyes set on a state championship.