West Windsor, N.J. - For the first time ever Mercer County Community College’s men’s and women’s tennis teams played in the spring season. Women’s tennis transitioned to the spring as part of its shift to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I.
What didn’t change, however, was Head Coach Marc Vecchiolla’s commitment to a fun and engaging environment.
“Our coaching staff wants players to continue to love tennis even as they get older,” Vecchiolla said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t take practices and games seriously, because we do. But we also want tennis to be the most enjoyable part of the day for our students.”
Despite Mercer’s switch to a more higher division, the Lady Vikings stayed competitive. No. 1 singles freshman Tanya Madhok and no. 2 singles sophomore Sofia Stepanoff represented Mercer at the 2019 NJCAA National Championship in Tyler, Texas. Madhok and Stepanoff also paired for doubles play.
“I love road trips with the team,” Vecchiolla said. “That’s when the players start to bond. You start to see them take the headphones off, turn off the cellphones, and really take time to enjoy each other’s company. It makes for a more cohesive team.” Though they didn’t place among the top performers at nationals, both managed to take games against their competition.
On the other side of the net, Mercer men’s tennis entered the season intent on returning to the big stage. Last season the Vikings competed in the NJCAA national tournament, where they placed fourth out of nine schools.
This year, the Vikings made good on their goal. Led by freshman Alfred Kandakai (no. 1 singles) and sophomore James Bueno (no. 2 singles), Mercer returned to the post-season for the fifth consecutive year.
MCCC was represented at the tournament, held in Peachtree City, Ga., by Kandakai (no. 1 singles), Bueno (no. 2 singles), Jared Strubel (no. 3 singles), Harsh Patel (no. 4). Kandakai and Bueno paired for no. 1 doubles while Patel and Strubel teamed for no. 2.
“Alfred and Tanya’s situations parallel one another’s to a certain extent,” Vecchiolla said. “They’re both freshmen who earned the no. 1 spot on the men’s and women’s teams respectively. Both are incredibly talented and passionate about tennis. This year was a good measuring stick to see what it really takes to be successful at the national level.”
Though the Vikings didn’t make quite the splash they wanted – Mercer placed sixth out of seven teams – there was still reason to celebrate. After dropping his first match against Onondaga, Kandakai bested players from Illinois Valley and Nassau to win the back-draw at no. 1 singles. Bueno also saw some success at the tournament, taking his first match against Illinois Valley.
Kandakai and Bueno’s efforts resulted in them placing on NJCAA All-Region 19 teams. Kandakai made the All-Region Second Team (no. 1 singles), while his tandem with Bueno earned them an All-Region Second Team (no. 1 doubles) nod.
“I just hope this year was a positive experience,” Vecchiolla said. “Playing sports provides more structure and we really wanted to create an environment in which our players could thrive as students and athletes.”
Vecchiolla was assisted by Ralph Bencivengo, Barb Pleva and Greg Del Favero.