In 1982, there was no Facebook and no Twitter for members of the Hopewell Valley tennis team to instantly tell their friends all at once that they won the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II championship.
Over the past 30 years, of course, there have been many improvements on how to get the word out quickly when good news came along. The only problem was, HoVal tennis never had news of that magnitude to report since then.
Until this year.
Led by one of the best players in program history, Hopewell enjoyed one of its greatest seasons by going 16-1 and reaching the NJSIAA Group III finals before falling to Millburn – the state’s No. 1 ranked team and Tournament of Champions title winner.
Junior Kenny Zheng spearheaded a young-but-seasoned lineup with another outstanding season at first singles. After becoming the first Hopewell player to win a Mercer County Tournament first singles title in 2011, he became the first Bulldog to reach the Round of 8 in the NJSIAA State Singles Tournament this year.
Zheng finished 17-2-1 but was unable to defend his county championship due to injury.
“It was tough to not be able to defend my MCT title,” Zheng said. “But as a team our biggest goal was the state sectional title. I knew after MCT’s that we still had the entire season ahead of us and I was even more motivated to work towards the sectional title.”
It was something Zheng and his teammates all thought was possible back in March.
“At the start of the season, we felt that we had a very strong lineup and we thought that we had a good shot at winning the title,” Zheng said. “This year I think our entire team knew what we were capable of. We felt that this year was going to be special and we felt pretty confident the entire season that we could go all the way.”
It came to pass on May 18, when Hopewell blitzed Wall, 5-0, to win Central Jersey Group III for the first time since Jane Vogel coached the team. Making the day even more special was that Vogel was on hand to watch the present-day Bulldogs win it.
And while it meant so much to the doctor and the players, it really meant a lot to head coach Alma Quinlan. The well-respected coach had never won a sectional title in eight years at Southern Regional and 12 more at HVCHS. She came close a few times, but finally got to go on a honeymoon.
“My line was ‘Always a bridesmaid never a bride,’ …and I am now a bride,” Quinlan said. “A coach’s dream of a state [sectional] title has come true.”
She thanked Marc Friedland and Ryan Heiser, four-year players who helped the Bulldogs reach the championship this year. Friedland went 15-2-1 at second singles and received the Bulldog Sportsmanship Award the past two seasons.
“He was a solid player that exemplified sportsmanship,” Quinlan said. “He was an impact player all four years in the singles lineup.”
Heiser teamed with sophomore Laurent Guenin at second doubles and brought a veteran expertise and savvy to the matches.
Hopewell got a break at third singles when senior foreign exchange student Ahmed Al-Shawafi showed up after he was originally supposed to attend Hamilton West. Al Shawafi went 15-3 and was runner-up at third singles in the Mercer County Tournament.
“Ahmed had an incredible ‘Energizer Bunny’ reputation,” Quinlan said. “He was always the first to arrive and last to leave practice. He received the Team Spirit Award for his positive presence all the time. Coaches wait a lifetime for an exchange student of this caliber.”
The first doubles team was also solid, as sophomore Russell Nicholson and junior Trevor Johnson combined to go 14-3. Nicholson jumped from JV to varsity and made an immediate impact, which earned him the team’s Most Improved Player award.
Also chipping in was freshman Alex Ochalski, who teamed with Guenin in the Group III semifinal win over Tenafly when Heiser had a commitment at Penn State.
Other contributors were juniors Noah Gordon, Scotty Hilliard, Chad Zantin and Andreas Vermeulen and sophomore Roger Toussaint.
Special mention has to be reserved for Zheng, who gave the Bulldogs that rare advantage of having a near-guaranteed point at first singles.
“He’s a true gentleman,” Quinlan said. “He plays the game with the decorum that was the foundation of this game – sportsmanship, respect and honor.”
Zheng had similar compliments for the coach.
“Coach Quinlan’s positive attitude definitely has a big influence on the team,” Zheng said. “She keeps us focused and never lets us get down on ourselves.”
Good coaching, good players and a good attitude added up to a memorable season for all involved.
“This was a very special team that made Hopewell history,” Quinlan said. “They won the first-ever Central Group III title and reached the Group III finals for the first time.
“We had all the pieces at the start – an exchange student who was nationally ranked; and Holmdel moving to Group II after they beat us in last year’s sectional finals. They were huge factors in putting together the pieces.”
Quinlan felt a 5-0 win over Princeton in the regular season was the defining moment in which she knew this could be a special year.
“I never take anything for granted,” she said. “But the ‘Yes, we will go far’ thought came after we beat them. They’re always a strong competitor, so that gave us a gauge that was in our favor.”
And once it all came about, Twitter and Facebook accounts were buzzing at HVCHS.