By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Approximately 200 people lined the fence around Woodstown High School’s home tennis court to watch the deciding match in Monday’s South Jersey Group I title game.
“It was definitely stressful,” said Middle Township first doubles player Teo Dimitrov. “But once you get into the game you just have to have the mentality to play your heart out and give everything you have.”
Dimitrov and his partner, John Leahy, did just that.
The pairing outlasted Woodstown’s Colin Christoff and Zach McHarness, 6-4, 0-6, 7-6 (7-4), to gain the deciding point as Middle posted a 3-2 win to claim its second straight South Jersey Group I title and third in four seasons.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Dimitrov said. “I’m happy to be a part of it, and I’m so glad so glad we could be a major factor it.”
Dimitrov and Leahy held leads of 2-1, 4-3 and 5-4 in the final set but couldn’t put away their opponents. In fact, the Woodstown team fought off three match points at 5-4 and eventually forced the tiebreaker. But Dimitrov and Leahy regrouped and controlled the tiebreaker. On the match-clinching point, Leahy served and Dimitrov eventually put away a volley at the net to seal the sectional championship.
“It was crazy,” Leahy said. “My partner and I were never in a situation like that before. It was all adrenaline. We just kept pounding and pushing through our mistakes and we found a way to win.”
Middle (18-2), which won its 16th straight match, will face Central Jersey champion Highland Park in a state semifinal match later this week.
Middle earned its other two points at first and third singles. Max Gilbert, the son of head coach Matt Gilbert, got past Jordan Lindstrom, 6-0, 6-4, at first singles and Justin Price posted a 6-3, 6-2, win over Dan Bonowski at third singles.
With Woodstown having won at second singles and second doubles, all in attendance turned their attention to the first doubles match.
“I’ve never seen our first doubles team play with that much intensity and that much heart,” coach Gilbert said. “It was amazing to see. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There had to be 200 people there. There was a lot of hooting and hollering in between points and people hanging on the fences. It’s the way tennis should be.”
Middle defended its sectional title despite featuring just two players who saw regular varsity action a season ago.
“This was a long road this season but winning 16 matches in a row after we lost two close ones to Millville and Vineland by small margins really made us stronger,” coach Gilbert said. “The pain of those defeats inspired the guys to work very hard.”
Middle won the sectional championship as a No. 3 seed, beating No. 2 Pennsville on the road in the semifinal last week before edging the top-seeded Wolverines in the final.
After returning to the area, the Panthers were honored by an impromptu parade along Main Street in Cape May Court House, complete with a ride on the top of one of a few fire trucks that led the route.
“There’s a lot of credit that has to go around,” coach Gilbert said. “Us winning South Jersey isn’t possible without John Leahy (Sr.), Danny Fala and Anthony DiCicco helping out coaching and putting in the endless hours. There are the alumni who come back and support us and the support we get from the administration to help us run the program. And then the parade was just amazing. It was 10 fire trucks deep. Just a very special experience for us.”