NEW CANAAN — When the Darien boys tennis team lost to rival New Canaan 4-3 back in late April, Blue Wave junior Nick Derby was on the losing end of the decisive match at No. 3 singles.
Fast forward a few weeks and it was Derby, on that same court, putting the finishing touches on Darien’s 4-1 victory over the Rams in the FCIAC semifinals Thursday at NCHS.
“These matches are a lot of fun, but they’re also nerve-wracking,” Derby said after the win. “I was the last match on the last time when we lost to them, so I was just so happy that I was able to turn it around and get it this time.”
The victory puts the third-seeded Blue Wave (15-2) in the FCIAC final for the first time in 19 years. They last made it to the title tilt in 2000, when they lost to Staples. Darien’s last FCIAC championship was in 1989 when they defeated Ridgefield in the final.
The Wave will face either No. 1 Staples or No. 4 Greenwich, who play their semifinal match Friday at 4 p.m., for the championship Tuesday at Wilton High School.
“It’s an honor to take these kids to the final,” Darien head coach Hugh Underhill said. “We’re really looking forward to it. It’s so great for the boys and it’s an honor to go into these matches and show what these boys are capable of.”
For No. 2 New Canaan (17-2), the loss was just the second in what has been a remarkable season.
“I have to congratulate Darien,” New Canaan head coach Ben Young said. “They really came in focused and played at a high level. It was a good day for them top to bottom. Our boys battled and they stayed in there on and off the court, but it just wasn’t our day today.
“Losing is always disappointing, but at the same time, I’m really proud of the boys,”
While Darien took four of the five completed matches, there were many long points and close sets throughout the lineup.
New Canaan’s lone point was the first match off the courts, as the No. 2 doubles team of Jack McCarthy and Alessandro Sulpizi defeated Darien’s Ian Wise and Tyler Cramer in straight sets 6-2, 6-0.
The Blue Wave’s Ethan Zhang tied the score when he defeated Griffen Dayton at No. 4 singles 6-1, 6-0.
Darien’s Michael Karr then finished his No. 1 singles match with a 6-2, 6-3 decision against New Canaan’s Matt Brand for a 2-1 Wave lead.
At No. 3 doubles, Darien’s Sergei Doroshin and Andrew Kelley rallied for the win against Ben Graham and Andrew Zuo in a back-and-forth match 6-4, 7-6 (7-4).
That left three matches still in play, with Derby sealing the deal for the Blue Wave with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Sai Akavaramu at No. 3 singles.
Akavaruma had pulled out a tight match against Derby during the regular season, but Derby turned the tables in the semis.
“I was trying to be more steady, more aggressive, trying to keep the ball deeper and move him around more,” Derby said. “Last time, he was just kind of out-rallying me, so this time I tried to get him back and out-rally him.”
“It seems like everyone on the team is peaking now and that shows with Nick’s game,” Underhill said. “He’s hitting the ball so much cleaner now, he’s being more aggressive, coming to the net more. (Akavaramu) played great, but Nick has gained so much confidence in his game over the last few weeks. He’s just on it.”
Darien now heads into uncharted waters with its trip to the conference final.
“This is a great feeling,” Derby said. “I’ve been on the team for three years now, and it means so much to help carry the team through to the finals.”
New Canaan, meanwhile, will go back to work and prepare for the CIAC Class L tournament, where they’ll play against, among others, Darien for the title.
“The season isn’t over,” Young said. “We have a new chapter to prep for which is states. We have a little more time to prep for that which is going to be helpful. We always want to look at getting better every day. Sometimes losses are a hard way to do that, but we can find some positives from today, figure out what we need to work on and need to do and move forward.”
“Having the opportunity to play New Canaan is always a challenge and we always look forward to it. They’re a great group of boys, they’ve got a great coach, and these matches seem to bring out the best in both teams. It shows you what a great sport tennis is.” — Darien head coach Hugh Underhill