LINCOLN — Back on April 30, Mount St. Charles Academy head coach Sean McClelland had to face crosstown rival Woonsocket without three of his top four singles players, including senior tri-captain Jack Ricci, sophomore Mike Doody and junior Travis Connolly.
The first two were out due to illness and a back injury, respectively, while Connolly missed it for what McClelland termed “a disciplinary reason.”
The Mounties nevertheless survived a 5-2 regular-season decision, but the mentor admittedly worried about taking on the gritty Villa Novans in a R.I. Division II Team Tournament quarterfinal on Tuesday afternoon.
“I told the kids a couple of days ago that they couldn’t take anyone lightly,” McClelland explained during the match. “I said that this is the post-season, and that they were here for a reason, too. I just asked them to work hard out there, be level-headed and do their jobs the best they could.”
MSC followed their coach’s advice to a “T.” In the end, already with a 3-0 cushion, Ricci rolled to a 6-0, 6-1 decision over senior Greg Wala at the top singles slot to deliver the Mounties a 4-0 triumph over Woonsocket at the High Ridge Swim & Tennis Club courts.
The contest was delayed 40 minutes due to nearby thunder and lightning, and the Mount needed only approximately 12 minutes upon returning to the surface to clinch the win.
MSC not only improved to 11-2 on the season, but also earned a semifinal bid against Classical at 5 p.m., Thursday at Wheeler Farm in Seekonk.
“That’s the rematch we wanted,” McClelland grinned afterward. “We lost a 4-3 heartbreaker to them last week; we lost the second, third and fourth doubles after Jack won. I thought we ended up dropping the match at those singles positions, but two of them went to three sets.
“If just one of those had eked it out, it would’ve been a different story,” he added. “The good news was my second doubles team (of sophomores Matt Saviano and John Blanchette) lost the first set and were down 2-5 in the second, but they fought back to win the second set 7-6 (3) and the third at 6-2.
“Still, I know we can play better as a team than we did then.”
The event was emotional for another reason: It would be the last-ever match for the Mounties at High Ridge, as their new courts will be ready for the girls’ squad’s season opener this coming fall.
MSC has played most of their home tilts at the Lincoln site dating back to 1990.
As for the quarterfinal, the No. 1 tandem of senior tri-captain Jake Deslandes and sophomore Ethan Guevremont cruised to a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Mike Labreche and Donny Panyathong, while Doody downed senior southpaw Ricky Inxi, 6-3, 6-3, for the second point at No. 2 singles.
Perhaps 20 minutes before the rain/lightning delay, Inxi trailed, 3-1, in the second set, but took his own serve and broke Doody to pull even at 3-3. The Mountie returned the favor in the seventh game, then held a 5-3 cushion and a 15-love lead just as coaches halted the match.
“Once we got back out there, I won three of the next four points to clinch,” Doody offered. “I was a little shaky midway through the set, but I got it back together. I won a couple of points and got back into the groove.
“I had a couple of unforced errors, more than that; I just wanted to get to the net, place the ball in the corners and work his backhand,” he continued. “That worked pretty well. I just went back to the basics, and that’s what got me back into it.”
Junior Matt Ceh Castillo followed with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Luke Cheever at No. 3 before Ricci mustered the triumph over Wala.
“My goal was just to keep the ball deep with a lot of topspin, but that’s always pretty much my game plan,” Ricci stated. “I thought I hit too many short balls for my liking, and Greg did a great job of punishing me for that; he just put them away.
“In the first set, I thought I played pretty cleanly,” he added. “In the second, I felt like he was starting to get into it, despite the final score … We didn’t make the team tournament last year, so this is a great start to what we hope will be a great journey.”
Wala indicated he didn’t play to his abilities, and was puzzled as to why.
“I thought I played OK, but I made way too many unforced errors,” he sighed.
Woonsocket mentor Mike McGee nevertheless explained Wala had turned in a fantastic effort in this, his senior campaign.
“His game has come on great the last month or so,” McGee mentioned. “He made it to the state singles tournament, and was one of the top 24. He lost (in straight sets) to La Salle’s No. 1 (Marco Amendola), and he was seeded third in the whole thing.”
Wala plans on joining his brother, current sophomore Mariusz, on the Johnson & Wales men’s team next spring.
“He played second singles, so my goal is to jump into the starting lineup,” he said.
McGee claimed his Novans (7-6 overall) produced a fine season, especially after earning respective 6-1 and 7-0 II-North wins over East Providence and Toll Gate just to gain a playoff spot.
“We were in the Division III postseason two years ago, but were 4-12 last year,” he noted. “We moved up to D-II and went 7-5. Before the last two matches, we were 5-5 and tied for the sixth slot with Toll Gate, but then shut them out.
“I thought it was fantastic, us making the playoffs,” he continued. “The kids were really excited. We had eight seniors on the team, and – unfortunately – we’re going to lose all eight, but we were very happy getting here. We knew Mount would be a real challenge, but they played better and just prevailed.”