When the draw for the PIAA Class 3A girls’ tennis state championships was released, Harriton had a good feeling it could advance to the finals, where it appeared as though they would face three-time defending champion and prohibitive favorite North Allegheny.
As the matches were completed and the draw played out as most expected, what happened in the finals surprised nearly everyone, as the Rams continued to employ their team-first philosophy and pulled off their most improbable win of the season with a 3-2 win over the Lady Tigers in the state final Oct. 29, snapping a 44-match winning streak of North Allegheny and bringing the title back to the Eastern side of the state for the first time since Lower Merion won in 2005.
“Harriton girls’ tennis has always been a team sport,” said second-year coach David Broida, who becomes just the second coach in school history to guide the Rams’ girls tennis team to a state championship. “The stronger, more seasoned players have taught technique to the novices and everyone takes an abiding interest in the matches of their teammates, thanks in large part to the senior leadership.”
Harriton senior co-captain Sonia Groeneveld added, “This championship was a total team effort. When the doubles competition was tough and we needed the singles to step up, they won all their matches. And when we needed the doubles teams to step up against teams with top singles players, the doubles teams pulled us through. What really made this team win very special was the fact that it wouldn’t have been possible without each and every girl on the roster.”
With the match level at 2-2, the championship came down to a decisive third set between sophomore Connie Richards and North Allegheny senior Tina Li, who will be heading to Naval Academy in the fall to continue her tennis and academic career.
Richards took a 3-1 lead before Li climbed back to narrow the deficit to 4-3. Richards then held serve to move to within one game of the championship at 5-3. Serving to stave off elimination, Li quickly went down love-40, fought back valiantly to 30-40, then after a ferocious exchange of power strokes, Richards nailed a groundstroke deep to Li’s backhand that the senior could not return to give Harriton its first girls’ team tennis state championship at the Class AAA level (the eighth in school history – seven titles at Class AA level under Coach Jack Ladden).
Broida said, “Connie (Richards) played the match of her life against North Allegheny. With the match even at two wins, the outcome rested on Connie and her opponent. Before going onto the court after the second set Connie’s teammates cautioned me not to let her know that she was playing the deciding match. I didn’t, of course. But with all the teammates and parents watching and cheering every point, Connie instinctively knew what she had to do. She converted on the third match point and her teammates rushed onto the court to congratulate her. It was a thrilling finish to a great season.”
“It meant so much winning the final match in the state finals this year. My team supported me tremendously and I wouldn’t have been able to get through the final set without their cheering and encouragement,” Richards said.
Groeneveld added, “That was one of the most spectacular tennis matches that I have ever seen. Connie played the most amazing that I’ve ever seen her play. She played with so much pressure on her, but she just took the team on her back. The whole team “had her back” too, and I’m so proud of her for getting us that third win and pulling us through to the state championship.”
The victory ends a season along with a career for three seniors – Groeneveld, Izzy Lushbough and Kit Meiler- who set the tone on and off the court along with teaching the young players about the Harriton tennis culture.
Groeneveld said, “The State Championship was always something that we had in mind from the start of the season, but until last night it wasn’t something that we thought we could actually win. Last year we were close, but we were soundly beaten in the semifinals, so it still seemed far off. To win the championship with this group of girls in my senior year is an indescribable feeling.”
Richards added, “Our team did extremely well this year (winning districts) and winning states for the seniors was amazing because they definitely deserved it. Sonia was such an incredible captain this year, she believed in the team throughout the entire journey and was able to make everyone believe in themselves.”