by Andrew Garda

The Montclair High School boys tennis team had a wild time at the Essex County Tournament this past weekend, including a semifinal match on Saturday that was interrupted by rain, multiple super-set finishes on Sunday when things resumed, capped by the Mounties’ first-ever appearance in the county championship match.

Unfortunately, they fell to Millburn 4-1 in the finals, but their 3-2 win over Livingston in the semifinal marked another delightful surprise in a season that has been filled with them.

Nobody expected the Mounties to beat Newark Academy in early April, but they did, 3-2. Nobody expected them to beat Millburn in a regular season game last Wednesday to take charge of the Super Essex Conference’s elite American Division, either.

“I am very proud of these boys,” head coach Andrea Noyes said after the finals. “They proved they belong as one of the top teams in the state and now we have to go to states and prove it again.”

Play began on an overcast Saturday, but officials were optimistic they could at least get the semifinals in. As MHS and Livingston battled, though, it began to rain and conditions became slippery and unsafe for the athletes. Play was halted and then officially called an hour later, with plans to resume the tournament on Sunday.

The layoff definitely had some impact, as the Mounties were a bit slow out of the gate on Sunday. As the match wore on, MHS picked up steam and both teams found themselves in a dogfight.

Senior Peter Messenger beat Livingston’s Jason Grant in straight sets (7-6, 6-1), while sophomore Charles Becker dropped his match to Sam Levshteyn (6-1, 6-2). Then, first doubles pair Andrew and Kevin Wallace found themselves in a super-set after splitting the first two sets by scores of 6-1 and 6-4. Livingston’s Kyle Ferguson and Austin Sertner beat MHS’ freshmen, 10-4.

However, the second doubles pairing of seniors Calvin Alexander and Aaron Reznik came back from a rough 6-3 loss to the Lancers’ Ross Coleman and Aaron Tucker in the first set, battling to a break to win the second set 7-6 and force a super-set. The Mountie doubles pair would win that super-set by a score of 10-7.

Which left the pivotal match in the hands of the Mounties’ first single, sophomore Leo Kupferman.

After winning the first set against Earl Hsiegh by a score of 6-4, Kupferman struggled and dropped the second 6-3, with Hsiegh forcing a super-set.

It was a tough, back-and-forth match with both players stepping up brilliantly multiple times. Kupferman took an early lead, but Hsiegh fought back and made things interesting before Kupferman finished it for good, winning the set 10-6 and sending Montclair to its first-ever county tournament final.

Top-seeded Millburn was waiting, fresh off a tight victory of its own over Newark Academy.

The Mounties kept the momentum from their win over Livingston going and, as with the semifinal match, took an early 4-1 lead.

The Wallace brothers would go on to win their match in straight sets over Millburn’s Jai Bansal and Jason Dresner, but they were the only ones to claim victory.

Both sides put in tremendous effort and the competition was fierce. These were two squads who knew each other well, having already faced off twice previously, including a match just a few days prior to the tournament.

In the end, though, the Mounties seemed a bit tired.

Alexander and Reznick forced Millburn’s John Murray and David Sternlieb to a third set — in finals play, the match is not determined by one super-set but a regular third set — with a big 6-2 win in the second set only to fall in that last set 6-3.

Messenger seemed to have control against Jason Schick after a 6-2 first set, but the Miller player kept grinding, chipping away at Messenger and winning the second set 7-6. That seemed to take the gas out of Messenger a little as he dropped the final set 6-1.

By then, the Millers had already won, however, as Millburn’s Alex Jacobs overcame a tough but tired Kupferman. For much of the first set and half of the second, it seemed like Kupferman’s blistering hits were more than a match for Jacobs. The junior adjusted his game, though, by using short drop shots to force Kupferman to run all over the court to counter them.

Kupferman, definitely fatigued after an emotional and fierce final match in the semis, worked hard and never gave in, but couldn’t overcome Jacobs.

“I think it was a long day, it was hard to stay focused,” Noyes said. “I think [Jacobs] was a tremendous retriever and determined. It was a tough battle for [Kupferman] today.”

Now the Mounties have to regroup and get ready for the state tournament, which kicks off in early May. Noyes is sure they’ll be ready to build on their county success.

“We were an underdog who proved themselves and the boys are interested in doing that again at state.”