MADISON — Dawn Fagerquist has never forgotten when an opposing coach once told her following a loss that the Hand boys tennis team “lacked desire.”
It’s also something she uses to inspire her team before every match.
“Right after that, the only thing we talk about in every team huddle is, ‘Who has the desire?’” Fagerquist said. “I get fired up. I can’t help it. I’m very competitive and driven.”
Hand hasn’t lost much since. In fact, the Tigers haven’t lost a regular season match since late in the 2016 season.
It’s now 51 consecutive regular-season wins for Hand.
“I think our dedication during the offseason makes us better than all of the other teams we play,” said sophomore Josh Israel, Hand’s No. 1 singles player. “The majority of players play year-round while on the other teams have a couple play during the offseason. We have a lot of depth and consistency.”
So Hand is setting a new benchmark for team success on the boys side in the Southern Connecticut Conference. Those Tigers don’t need to look very far to see who is on top on the girls’ side.
The Hand girls team’s winning streak is at 53 and counting. The Tigers have completed their third consecutive undefeated regular season and have more than a week off to rest up for the postseason.
“When you look around and see the team fighting hard, it gives you the burst of energy you need to win a match for your team,” said Sam Riordan, Hand’s No. 1 singles player.
Hand’s last loss on the girls side in the regular season was on May 5, 2016 to Amity — ironically, the same team the boys last loss to during the regular season, in the same month of the same year (May 18, 2016).
The Hand girls won the 2017 Class M state championship, lost in the 2016 final and were eliminated in last year’s Class L semifinals. Hand is back in Class M this year.
“It has to be a team. Third doubles is just as important as Sam Riordan (at No. 1 singles),” Hand coach Kitty Palmer said.
Both Israel and Riordan have had personal tennis coaches for several years. Most, if not all, of the players on both teams play plenty outside of the high school season.
“For me, the offseason is definitely more strenuous than during the season,” said Israel, who played No. 2 singles as a freshman at Hand before moving into the top spot this season. “I am traveling to tournaments at least twice a month. It definitely prepares me for this high school season.”
Palmer noted that some members of both teams play USTA for the Madison Racquet Club in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Players compete on the district level, followed by the sectionals and the nationals, Palmer said.
“They’ve had a lot of success,” Palmer said. “When you play in those tournaments, there is a lot of pressure.”
Palmer noted that she doesn’t have a JV program. There are just 13 kids who came out for the team this season.
“We only have 13 who signed up to play tennis, but they are all good,” Palmer said.
Among the 13 is Catherine Aranow, the team’s only seniors who teams with Breanna Colonese-DiBello at No. 3 doubles.
“She is the only person from her class who came all the way through,” Palmer said. “I give her a lot of credit for hanging in here for four years.”
Both teams had to survive a scare this month to keep the winning streaks intact. The girls won 4-3 at Amity on April 30 while the boys survived at Guilford by the same score last Tuesday.
The boys have three regular-season matches left, all at home next week.
In a sport that breeds plenty of individual success, it’s the team success that the players enjoy being a part of.
“I would not be playing on this team if I didn’t enjoy it,” said Israel, 16. “I’m able to enjoy my practices and my matches and have my friends (on the team) and last year my brother (Rob) on the team.”
Fagerquist has plenty of faith in her players — enough that once she settles on a starting lineup at the beginning of the season, barring an injury, absence or a minor tweak here or there — it has remained the same throughout this season and in past ones.
“We have some good freshman who come in wanting to play. They all work hard in practice,” Fagerquist said. “I think everybody wants to beat us and try hard to beat us, change their lineups to try and beat us. I trust my lineup and trust my boys.”
The Hand girls have clinched the No. 1 seed in the SCC tournament and goes for the program’s third straight title. The boys need to avoid a loss to Amity on Monday to ensure the top seed on its side.
The boys will be trying to repeat. Fagerquist hasn’t forgotten the loss to Fairfield Prep in the 2017 final.
“Based on our results this season, anything other than a win is not achieving our goal,” Israel said.
Said Riordan: “I don’t think there is necessarily pressure (to defend at SCCs),” Riordan said. “I think we all want it. I would say if we didn’t win, it would be a disappointment. If I wasn’t as close with the girls as I am, I don’t think I would be nearly as successful.”
Israel wants to be the top seed on a successful defense of a Class L state championship, then make a run in the State Open. Riordan reached the Open quarterfinals last year and would like to go deeper this season.
Barring something unforeseen, both players will be back to try and extend Hand’s dual regular season winning streak and remain the teams to beat in the SCC.