LYNNFIELD — You’d have to think that in 81 combined seasons coaching wrestling and girls tennis at Lynnfield High, that legendary coach Craig Stone has seen it all, especially when it comes to putting together championship teams.
This spring, however, rebuilding the 2018 girls tennis team and contending for a fifth straight North Division 3 title may be easier said than done.
“I can’t ever remember a situation like this in terms of having so little experience coming back,” said Stone, now in his 38th year coaching the Pioneers. “Plus, many of the teams we face have gotten better. Manchester-Essex is loaded this year with a freshman who is a top-15 in New England. She will bump everyone down a spot, so they are very strong. In fact, Hamilton-Wenham, Austin Prep Newburyport and Masco are also going to be strong, and Martha’s Vineyard is also returning a lot of players, so we have some work to do.”
Last year marked the end of an era in Lynnfield tennis, which graduated one of the most accomplished senior classes ever in program history.
The Class of 2017 won four north sectional titles, captured the 2014 Division 3 state championship as freshmen and also picked up two CAL titles (2014, 2015).
Last year’s seniors were 19-2 last season and finished with their careers with a record of 79-5, setting a class record for most wins in a 4-year span. Every one of the eight seniors on last year’s team posted winning records in dual matches, with four of them entering the Lynnfield High School Girls Tennis Hall of Fame reserved for the top-50 dual match record holders from 1981-present.
Four-year first singles player Sarah Mezini, now a freshman on the women’s team at UMass Amherst, finished her career with the best overall record in program history (85-9). Mezini was the first Pioneer to win three straight CAL Player of the Year awards and was one of six seniors in the regular starting lineup last year.
While there are six returning players, junior Alexa Vittiglio is the only returner with significant varsity experience. She worked her way into the starting lineup at doubles last year, won nine doubles matches and finished with an overall varsity record of 11-6. She and first doubles partner Katie Nugent secured a key point in the Pioneers’ 3-2 win over Manchester-Essex in the semifinals of last year’s tournament, coming from behind in both sets to win in straight sets.
Vittiglio, along with seniors Christina Albano and Makayla Maffeo, will serve as captains. Albano had an outstanding season last year on the JV team, posting a 19-0 doubles record with eight different partners, while Maffeo bounced between varsity and JV. Like Albano, Maffeo was undefeated in JV doubles (12-0), while in varsity action she posted a doubles record of 3-0.
“Alexa is a real competitor and it remains to be seen what each of the captains’ roles will be, but are going to have to take on their roles no matter how big or how small,” Stone said. “Already they have done a nice job in the off season with running conditioning sessions twice a week, but it will all come down to improving day to day and week to week.”
Sophomores Celeste Joly, Gillian Skelley and Claire Yang return for a second year on varsity but each saw limited action last season with each winning one doubles match with no losses. However, each enjoyed great success at the JV level with Joly finishing 14-0 (13-0 in doubles), Skelley finishing 14-4 (13-3 in doubles) and Yang finishing 12-0 in singles and 12-1 overall.
“They were part of a group of talent that we brought up last year, and they will have to mature this year,” said Stone. “The JV group knows they can compete, so that’s a big thing going forward for them. They know what it’s like to succeed at the JV level and are excited to step up this year.”
Lynnfield opens the season with two non-league matches, the first at home against North Andover next Tuesday followed by a road match on Thursday at Bishop Fenwick.
The Pioneers’ first chance to test the league’s strength is the CAL Open on Saturday, April 14 at Ipswich.
The Pioneers will host the Crusaders in a rematch on May 18 and also have non-league matches scheduled for May 22 against Austin Prep and May 24 at Marblehead.
Three of the Pioneers’ four non-league matches feature teams the Pioneers dispatched last year on their run to the north championship, including Fenwick, which lost in a sweep in round one, Manchester-Essex, which lost 3-2 in the semis, and Austin Prep, which was swept in the final.
The Pioneers’ first real challenge comes April 11 when they travel to Manchester-Essex to face the defending Cape Ann Baker Division champs where Lynnfield hopes to avenge its only regular season loss of 2017.