Top-seeded Newark Academy, No. 1 in the NJ.com Top 20, added to its grand history on the courts with a 5-0 victory against second-seeded and No. 4 East Brunswick in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final on Thursday afternoon at Mercer County Park in West Windsor.
The team championship is the Minutemen’s (24-0) state-leading 14th all-time. The Bears (20-3) were searching for their second-ever T of C crown. This was a rematch of the 1992 T of C final when East Brunswick topped Newark Academy.
“It feels great. It’s been a while we since won,” Newark Academy senior Andrew Zabelo said. “For the seniors, this is our first time. It’s been a tough season for me personally. I’ve had to overcome an injury, but we had a good match today and good season.”
“I’m super proud of our entire team,” fellow senior second singles Sam Goidel said. “We’ve worked so hard throughout the season. It’s been a long road and we’ve had a lot of tough matches, but I’m proud of the way we’ve persevered.”
Third singles Josh Mandelbaum started things off with a 6-0, 6-1 win over Ryan Val. Nicolas Kotzen also defeated Tanuj Chandekar, 6-2, 6-0, at first singles, and Goidel topped Carson He, 6-1, 6-2. At first doubles, Zabelo and Andrew Kotzen recorded a 6-2, 6-3 win against Nathan Bernadskii and Dhaivik Chenemilla to close out the match and Ethan Polen and Saif Prabhu beat Erik Wei and Gavin Gong as well at second doubles, 6-1, 6-0.
From start to finish, Newark Academy proved to be New Jersey’s best team, and June 10 was always in the back of both the coaches and players minds.
“We had this date circled on our calendar. We do goal-setting every year,” coach Lou Scerra said. “A lot of them are processes and getting better every day and playing as a team. This date was circled for sure. We had a strong team and we wanted to finish it our at Mercer County Park and be the last team standing. I’m proud of our guys.”
“For sure. We had several goals and this was definitely one of them,” Zabelo added. “We’ve been able to achieve most if not all of them.”
“This was one of our goals,” Goidel also said. “We also wanted to just again improve, have fun, and respect our opponents and being good teammates. This was definitely one of our goals and I’m so proud that we were able to complete it today.”
Newark Academy was also in the T of C final in 2019, the last time it was played, but it fell to Montgomery, and three of the five matches went to a third set. It was a defeat that hung over the returning players and that added fuel to the fire, even if the opponent differed.
“Yeah, two years ago we had a close loss in the final. It stung to lose,” Zabelo said. “It motivated all of us especially the seniors coming back.”
Added Goidel: “Our school culture in general is about improving each and every day. Our school culture is why we’re always pushing.”
The Minutemen for decades have been the team everyone looks up to for tennis. They’ve won 27 Group titles, and now, for the first time since 2016, the T of C trophy is headed back to Livingston.
“When I was in 6th grad and came to NA for the first time, just watching those guys and seeing how much fun they, how much they supported each other, and how much work they put in, that allowed me to get my first start with tennis,” Goidel said. “It’s come full circle. I’m the captain of the team and it’s awesome for us to come here and get the win today.”
“At our school, tennis is the sport everyone looks up to,” Zabelo said. “It’s great being a part of this team that achieved so much this season. We left a legacy.”
Many ultra-talented players have walked the halls of Newark Academy and stepped out onto the tennis courts and won both individually and as a team.
Is the 2021 version of the Minutemen the best to ever do it? Scerra, who has been on staff for 12 years and head coach for three including the lost 2020 campaign, gave his perspective.
“They’re up there,” Scerra said. “The guys have been thinking about that. I’ve been trying to push off that conversation until the end of the year. All of our alums have been supportive. They’ve been sending video messages to the guys pumping them up. I would say this group is up there with the best teams we’ve had. I can’t wait to play one more match with these guys tomorrow in our conference and I’m already looking forward to next year.”
For East Brunswick, four of the players who took part in the final are freshman, another is a sophomore, and another is a junior. A fifth rookie also played at second doubles in the semis of the T of C, so don’t be shocked if you see the Bears back at MCP next spring.
“Coming in, we didn’t know what was going to happen this year. We only have one senior. We had four, five freshman starters all season,” coach Cory Widmaier said. “For them to handle the big matches is awesome. It’s definitely exciting for the future as well.”
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