While it might seem natural to focus on the pile of victories that the MERHS boys’ tennis team has accumulated this spring, coach Rob Bilsbury would rather look at how his team played in losses to the top competition in the CAL as the season as progressed to gauge how much the Hornets have improved.
The Manchester Essex coach points to the team’s two losses against Hamilton-Wenham. On paper, the Hornets lost to the Generals twice by an identical 4-1 score on both May 17 and April 28. To Bilsbury, the important thing was just how his team played the second time around against the same challenging CAL foe.
At first singles, Jack Cummins lost 0-6, 3-6, the in the April match but was much more competitive on May 17, losing 5-7, 3-6 in much more competitive sets. It was a similar story at first doubles and third singles, while second singles stalwart Charles Virden provided the Hornets’ only points in each match.
“We went from being beaten handily to a more closely contested 4-1 loss,” says the coach. “It makes us feel like if we see them again in the state tournament, we will be right there with them, and there’s no reason to be afraid of them because we can play with them. We are lucky enough to know we can get there and now we don’t have to put them on a pedestal.”
As a result, a team that is 11-6 overall and 9-3 in the Cape Ann League is finding encouragement in losses like the recent one to Hamilton-Wenham, as well as seeing similar improvement in a 4-1 loss to Lynnfield on May 19. A May 22 matchup with Marblehead completes the “murderer’s row” segment near the end of the regular season schedule that could end up being the perfect preparation for things going up another notch when the MIAA tournament begins next month.
“Marblehead is a team that would probably beat Lynnfield, and Lynnfield beat Hamilton-Wenham,” explains Bilsbury. “Those are the types of matches – when you’re playing solid, hard-hitting opponents – are the best to get you ready for the state tournament. We have three quality opponents, back-to-back-to-back, we end up with North Reading (May 24) and then we have a little bit of time before the tournament starts.”
That bit of time in between the end of the regular season and the tournament should give the Hornets more opportunity to keep things lively in practice, one of the secrets to the team’s success this spring.
“We have feisty contention for spots on the team,” says Bilsbury. “We work hard in practice, which keeps us playing at our best. That competition level has helped us to improve on our season.”
The coach points to the work that team captains Cummins, Virden, Finn Straube and Alexander Breuker have done as the primary reason these sessions are so competitive and so successful.
“That’s why practice is the way it is,” explains Bilsbury. “Those guys have just really helped us get to where we are right now.”
Cummins and Verdin in particular have set an example with their focus on self-improvement.
“Charlie, with his backhand and Jack, with his serve and tactical strategies and ability to change things, both have worked hard on their tennis skills and both have been phenomenal.”
Also, of note has been the play of Jack Lawler and Finn Birkeland at second doubles.
“They’ve been super dependable getting real important points for us in big matches,” says Bilsbury.
At the start of the week, the Hornets were looking to wrap up another successful season and perhaps improve on their top-10 rating in the MIAA Div. 4 Power Rankings, a crucial factor in determining postseason seeding and playoff matchups. Thankfully, Manchester Essex seems to be peaking at the perfect time.
“It’s been a good overall season, and this is a great group that’s playing better and better as the season’s gone on,” says Bilsbury.