JAFFREY — The success of the Conant High girls’ tennis team, hit hard by the loss of four players to graduation, has surprised even its coach, Jody Baker.
Wednesday’s first round Division III playoff match against Profile was the real test to see how this young squad — boasting four sophomore and two freshmen starters — would perform under pressure.
The No. 4 seeded Orioles stood tall, showing that players in a strong program never fight alone as they triumphed over the No. 5 Patriots, 6-3.
Conant now plays at top seed St. Thomas Aquinas in the semifinals Friday at 4 p.m.
“I’m just so proud of them for working this hard and making it to this next match,” Baker said. “Anything can happen if you play your best.”
The Orioles are moving on because their lower-tier players delivered in the clutch.
After Conant’s four second-year “veterans” completed their singles matches, the team score was two apiece. For Conant, Sarah Smith won at No. 1 singles, 8-4 over Iris Miller White, and Elizabeth Gonyea won at No. 3, 8-1 against Maggie Egan, but Abigail Wheeler lost at No. 2, 8-3 to Emily Kerivan, and Kayley Bennett lost at No. 4, 8-3 to Livi White.
Even for Smith, the Orioles’ new top gun who made the jump from last year’s No. 5 slot after the mass graduation, the playoff nerves were palpable. But, after nearly blowing an early 3-0 lead, she settling in nicely and finished the job.
“At first I was very nervous,” Smith said, “but I think once we got through the first game or two, I was like, ‘this is it, we’ve got this.’ ”
From there, however, the Orioles’ rookie starters — who had to be taught how to serve and keep score at the start of this season — stepped up and turned the tide.
Emily Muilenberg crushed Anabel Boyer at. No. 5 singles, 8-1, and Lily Bower prevailed over Macie Opalinski at No. 6 in one of the most intense and tightly watched contests of the day.
Bower took an early 5-2 lead, but Opalinski won three straight to tie things and get back on serve. But after a chat between games with Coach Baker, Bower regained her composure and regained the lead, this time for good.
“I was getting in my own head and I was worried I was gonna lose it,” Bower said. “But Coach Baker, she really told me I’ve just gotta go point-by-point and I can’t focus on the bad points.”
The triumphant end of Bower’s long, hard-fought match provided a spark for her teammates, who were at that point in the midst of their doubles matches.
Smith and Gonyea were already one game away from victory at No. 1 doubles by that point, and shortly after cheering for Bower’s victory, they got to celebrate their own, clinching the team’s advancement with an 8-5 win over Kerivan and Egan.
When asked if she knew hers was the clinching win, Smith responded, chuckling: “I’m not very good at math, but I kind of added it up at the end. So yeah, it was a very good feeling.”
At that point, the pressure was off for the remaining doubles matches. Wheeler and Bennett lost a close No. 2 doubles match to Miller White and White, 7-9, and Muilenberg and Bower won at No. 3 doubles over Boyer and Opalinski, 8-3.
But despite Wheeler and Bennett’s second loss of the day, Baker said she was still proud of her players for fighting back from a 4-1 deficit and giving their opponents a battle.
“They got it back together, and it was a close match,” Baker said. “They had to work to pull themselves out of that.”
Since moving down from Division II to Division III this season, St. Thomas has been one of two teams (along with No. 2 Littleton) to go undefeated. Conant has not played the 15-0 Saints this season, but St. Thomas twice defeated Kearsarge — the team that handed the Orioles their only two losses this year.
Three freshmen hold down the first three singles positions for the Saints, who are trying to get back to the finals for the first time since 2014. Before then, the team won four titles in an eight-year span.
It certainly doesn’t look like a favorable matchup for Conant, but as Gonyea pointed out to her teammates in a post-match meeting, the Orioles girls’ basketball team was the top seed and lost to the fourth seed, Fall Mountain; now, the situation is simply reversed.
Baker added: “They’ve surprised me up to this point, so anything else can still happen.”