NORTH SMITHFIELD — Jen Brodeur had one of those seasons that doesn’t come around too often for a first-year coach.
Inheriting a strong nucleus of players from previous years, the North Smithfield coach watched her Northmen lose just one league match en route to capturing the Division III state championship.
Eight senior starters have since graduated from that squad. While she wouldn’t label it a rebuilding year, Brodeur wasn’t expecting a similar scenario this season.
“My expectations weren’t too high,” she admitted. “I knew that there were a lot of new players, who never actually played tennis before. The doubles’ girls have never played tennis. We were just hoping to have a fun season, and they are actually doing better than I expected.”
With the season near the midway point, North Smithfield has maintained a solid season on the courts. After a 7-0 shutout of III-North rival Shea on Wednesday afternoon, the fourth-place Northmen improved to 5-2 in the league. Ponaganset holds the top spot with an undefeated 7-0 mark, while Cranston East (7-2) and Scituate (6-2) hold a slim margin over N.S. in second and third.
“I think they have high expectations,” Brodeur said. “I think, in turn, other girls are following their lead and setting a good example for them. I wasn’t expecting much after (last year). I think another factor is a lot of teams lost players, too. We had the benefit of having (three) returning seniors.”
One of those returnees is Meg Mandeville at No. 1 singles. Mandeville was a key player in last year’s championship season, scoring the final point at the fourth slot in the Northmen’s 4-3 decision over previously-undefeated Rogers at the Slater Park courts.
Mandeville endured a tight match yesterday with the Raiders’ Christy Guerrero, winning by scores of 6-1, 2-6, 6-3.
The talented senior, who is the only returning singles’ player from last year, has held her own this fall.
“It’s definitely a different experience for her,” Brodeur said. “She won most of her matches last year so it’s a little different being at No. 1 where she’s losing a little more. She is improving and becoming more aggressive.”
Another strong player for the Northmen is junior Tiana Ahmed. She posted a 6-0, 6-1 victory over Raiders’ Darlene Cante to remain unbeaten for the season. Ahmed played third doubles for N.S. in 2010.
Senior teammates Brittany Walsh and Melissa Denham, who both played as doubles’ players last year, were also victorious against Shea. Walsh, a No. 1 doubles player last season, beat the Raiders’ Haley Knight at second singles with scores of 6-0, 6-1. Denham, a second doubles player as a junior, knocked off Kassandra Florez, 7-5, 6-1.
North Smithfield next match is an away contest with Tolman on Monday at the Slater Park courts. Brodeur believes team unity has benefitted her squad so far.
“I think they are just a close group of girls and they really work hard, especially in practice,” she stated.
On the other side of the court Wednesday afternoon was a young Shea squad that after its recent setback is now 2-6 in the league. The Raiders lost four players from last year’s team that went 7-9.
“We do have five seniors out here today, but other than Christy Guerrero everybody is new to the game,” Shea coach Kate Corry said. “I just look for improvement with each match and just the confidence for them to go out and play tennis on their own some day.
The Raiders’ victories this fall have come against Tolman and St. Raphael Academy, two squads that occupy the bottom of the standings.
“We’ve made some improvements (this season), but they are still learning the game,” Corry said. “Every time they go out, they learn something else.”