West Windsor, N.J. – Marc Vecchiolla, head coach for men’s tennis, readily admits that he and his players were disappointed that the Vikings were unable to qualify as a team or individually for the NJCAA national tournament.
“It was a heart breaker,” Vecchiolla said of the Region 19 Tournament, played at the Mercer County Tennis Center May 3-4. “We were the region’s clear-cut third place team going in, but that’s not the way the tournament is set up.”
He explained that Brookdale, the eventual third place winner, was missing players in three flights. So, Mercer got a “bye” for those flights in the first round, but earned no points for these matches, which Vecchiolla believes Mercer would have won.
Then they had to face seeded players in the next round.
“If you don’t win your match in the next round, you are done,” he observes, and that’s exactly what happened to the Vikings. It was a tough tournament all around. Even the team’s strongest player, Ahmed al-Shawafi at no. 1 singles, who had beaten his Brookdale rival, Maclane Smoke, three times during the regular season, couldn’t pull out the win in the Region 19 final.
Vecchiolla said that Brookdale’s Smoke and Ambrose Tingan at no. 2 singles were very strong, and that was enough to undo Mercer. “They won at no. 1 and no. 2 and then at no. 1 doubles, so that’s three flights out of nine,” he explained. “I give those two players full credit though. They are great players.”
Bergen won its first ever regional title and Gloucester finished second. Gloucester went on to win the national championship in Texas for the fourth consecutive year. Bergen placed third at nationals. Brookdale won nationals at first singles and first doubles.
Vecchiolla observes that the Vikings, who completed the season with a 10-8 record, once again found themselves up against the best teams in the nation in Div. III men’s tennis.
“It makes the goal of winning the title even at the regional level a major accomplishment. But it also makes our players better because they face such talented opponents. And getting better at the game of tennis is ultimately what it’s all about,” he said.
According to Vecchiolla, al-Shawafi, a freshman, was the Vikings' break-out player. He was 19-4 on the season and was selected to the All GSAC Team and the All Region Second Team at no. 1 singles. Other members of the team were freshmen Yasser Farid (no. 2), Dario Moriello (no. 3), David Clavijo (no. 4), and Kirrill Lebedev (no.5), and sophomore Elias DeLeon (no. 6). Al-Shawafi and DeLeon were this year’s co-captains. The roster also included first year players Nicholas Mastalesz and Stefan Neagu.
Vecchiolla is quick to point out the many positives as he reflects on the season. “The most important thing is they came together as a team. They were like a family by the end of the season. They were an enjoyable group of guys to coach. It was a fun process to see them evolve and develop.”
He adds that his players also learned valuable time management skills that they can apply now and in the future.
“It’s an eye-opening experience for many guys. They learn to balance academics with athletics and other responsibilities,” Vecchiolla said.
Having led the Vikings to nationals for the last four out of five years, Vechhiolla is already looking forward to next year, when al-Shawafi, Farid, Moriello, Mastalesz and Neagu will be back. “That will be a great nucleus to work from.”
Returning players will work with John Kalinowski, coordinator of MCCC’s Exercise Science program, in the off-season to continue with their strength training and conditioning.
Capping off the season was an alumni event on May 5. Sixty former players returned to the Mercer County Tennis Center, dating back to the first women’s team that Vecchiolla coached in 1997. (Vecchiolla, who has coached women’s tennis for 16 seasons and men’s tennis for six seasons, has kept in touch with many of his former players.)
“They played a doubles tournament, featuring some of the greats,” Vecchiolla said, noting the reunion of no. 1 doubles partners Marc Nichols and Jeremy Schmitter from the 2006 men’s team that came in third in the nation, and Alison Noll and Eva Szyszko, runners-up at no. 1 doubles at the 2011 national tournament, when the women’s team came in second.
“I had them all sit in the stadium bleachers and, for old times’ sake, asked them to do a lap and then stretch out with Ralph [Assistant Coach Ralph Bencivengo] before play began,” he said.
Vecchiolla was assisted this season by Ralph Bencivengo and Barb Pleva.