MIDDLEBURY — One of the greatest days in Montpelier sports history started with an intense girls tennis championship and an unlikely hero: sophomore Rachana Cherien.
The first-year varsity standout made a late-season jump from doubles to singles and wound up competing in the final match of the afternoon Wednesday against top-seeded Middlebury. Cherien was unfazed by the pressure, breezing to a 6-1, 6-1 victory to make sure the Solons hoisted the trophy once again.
Third-seeded Montpelier claimed payback and its eighth title all at once, avenging one of its only losses with a 4-3 victory over the Tigers. It set the tone for a Solons’ sweep, as the boys lacrosse team followed suit with championship of their own later in the eventing.
Cherien was the difference-maker at No. 5 singles, clinching the final team outcome with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Paige Hescock. The Solons have advanced to the semifinals 28 times and are 8-6 in championships. They reached the title match for the ninth time in 11 seasons.
Montpelier (12-2) advanced to the final with a 7-0 victory over No. 6 Woodstock and a 4-3 win at No. 2 Burr & Burton. The Solons suffered a 4-3 loss to the Tigers on May 19 before handing Middlebury (12-1) its first loss of the season at the perfect time.
“I don’t think anybody expected this to happen during preseason,” Montpelier coach Lou Cecere said. “We didn’t really having an indoor season. And spring break week, we had two practices — and one was in sleet. So it was really hard to get a feel for where we were. And based upon where they were 10 weeks ago, there’s no way I would have considered them at this caliber of play. Everybody has been willing to work hard to improve and put the time in. And it’s not an easy sport. There’s a lot of physical demands and a lot of emotional demands.”
Grace Murphy gave the Solons their first point of the day with a 6-0, 6-1 victory over Abby Bailey at No. 3 singles. Murphy improved to 12-2 on the season and followed up an earlier 6-3, 6-1 victory over Bailey.
“I really can’t say enough about how much Grace just dominated today,” Cecere said. “Her match was just so quick and there really wasn’t a lot to say to her. She was going side to side and not making mistakes. ...In tennis, it’s just you. And if you’re having a bad day, no one else can pick you up. And to Grace’s credit, she came out ready to play every match and took care of business. And before you blink, the first set’s over.”
The opponents in all seven matches Wednesday were identical to the teams’ initial meeting. The only difference in the outcomes was at No. 1 doubles as Montpelier picked up its second point. Sophie Sevi and Emily Swenson defeated Lois Alberts and Emma Franklin, 6-3, 6-2. Three weeks ago the Solons duo fell short against the Tigers, 7-6(5), 6-2.
“Sophie and Emily are both 5-10 or 5-11, so they are an imposing force at the net,” Cecere said. “And the two of them have worked so hard in the last three weeks on their volleying skills. Sophie is only a freshman and she was able to come through. They were cruising along 6-3, and then all of sudden they were down 2-1 and they looked incredibly tight. On the changeover, I just said, ‘You guys have to get back to the basics and want to win and stop shaking.’ To their credit, they both gave me a staredown — which basically said, ‘Leave me alone’ — and they finished out the match and won five games in a row.”
Georgia Schiff and Chloe Monteith gave Montpelier another crucial point at No. 2 doubles. They were in cruise control the whole way while overpowering Gwen Trombley and Bridget Graham, 6-1, 6-1. Schiff and Monteith pulled out a 6-4, 6-3 win over their Middlebury opponents during the regular season.
“Chloe and Georgia just dominated — and it’s been the same story for them all season,” Cecere said. “Chloe has been hitting some great forehand returns. And Georgia is just so aggressive and consistent at the net, that it’s hard to overcome that for any team that’s less experienced.”
All the attention shifted to the No. 5 singles battle with the team score knotted at 3. Cherian ruled the first set and didn’t slow down in the second, closing out a lopsided victory over Hescock.
“When this season started 10 weeks ago, if you had told me the championship match was going to come down to No. 5 singles, I’m not sure Rachana could have handled the pressure or had the physical ability to win,” Cecere said. “But she played calmly, she played error-free and was able to control points and cut down on mistakes. And in the end she was able to win quite easily.”
According to the MHS coach, both No. 5 singles opponents displayed outstanding sportsmanship with so much on the line.
“Rachana and Paige played great together and there were no line calls that were disputed,” Cecere said. “They had one little hiccup on scoring in a game. Both coaches stood back and Rachana and Paige figured it out. Tennis is a great sport to teach for life lessons that you’ve got to be able to advocate for yourself, be calm under pressure and pay attention to details. It doesn’t matter if you had a six- or seven-stroke rally. You still have to know what that score is when you started.”
At No. 1 singles, Middlebury’s Scarlett Carrara earned a 6-4, 3-6, 10-2 victory over Daphne Lassner. Carrara was a 7-6(5), 7-5 winner over Lassner earlier in the spring.
“Daphne got some momentum going and forced that match into a third-set tiebreaker,” Cecere said. “But Scarlett played very well in the tiebreaker and took command. I’m convinced that if the two of them played all summer, it would be that close every time. …Every day at practice, Daphne works harder than anybody just to keep improving her game. She stays positive and accepts that at No. 1 you don’t win as much — and it’s hard. And she kept her head up throughout the whole season and was a great teammate. She would lose a match — and today was heartbreaking — and two seconds later she’s over watching No. 1 doubles close out their match. And if we don’t have Daphne at the top of the lineup and I move everybody up, it’s a much different result.”
Middlebury’s Julia Bartlett earned a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Kenzie Golonka at No. 2 singles.
“Kenzie played an incredibly strong match, but Julia is a very good No. 2 player,” Cecere said. “Julia was able to get out in front and she controlled the match. But Kenzie stayed out there and stayed positive. She improved a lot, and she was locked into (the No. 2 position) all season. And based upon the games we’d play in practice, she deserved to have the No. 2 spot.”
At No. 4 singles, Elizabeth Bright earned a 6-0, 6-1 victory over Sydney Dunn.
“Elizabeth played an error-free match,” Cecere said. “In the second set, Sydney played a lot longer points and got to some deuce games. But Elizabeth was just too tough for her today. But win or lose, Syndey is out there supporting her friends. It’s her last match today as a senior and she can go out with her head high. And I told her that after the match that we are in the position we are because where she has played all season. Her calm demeanor and just being professional every day — whether it’s in practice or in matches — is so helpful. Obviously today didn’t go the way she had hoped or planned. But it doesn’t take away from a great year and what she did for the team.”
The Solons played four matches during five days from May 17-21. They lost to Middlebury during that hot-and-humid stretch, but they also earned a 7-0 victory three-time defending champ Woodstock.
“That week certainly made us a little tougher,” Cecere said. “It also brought us together a little as a team, being willing to fight through adversity. Losing that match to Middlebury, at the time it didn’t feel good. But it actually got the girls’ attention. Because at that point we had just beaten Woodstock and we had won seven in a row. So that loss brought us back down to earth a little bit. It got the girls thinking, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We can beat anybody. Let’s get serious about this.’”
Scarlett Carrara (MID) def. Daphne Lassner 6-4, 3-6, 10-2 Julia Bartlett (MID) def. Kenzie Golonka 6-2, 6-1 Grace Murphy (MO) def. Abby Bailey 6-0, 6-1 Elizabeth Bright (MID) def. Sydney Dunn 6-0, 6-1 Rachana Cherien (MO) def. Paige Hescock 6-1, 6-1