By BRIAN CUNNIFF
There are many high school sports programs that can put together a couple or a few seasons of success. Those that do it for much longer are few and far between.
The Middle Township High School boys tennis team is one such program, however.
The Panthers have begun yet another state playoff run, one they hope culminates with the program’s fourth South Jersey Group I title over six years (five seasons).
Middle, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, began defense of its 2019 title with a 5-0 win over No. 7 Collingswood on Wednesday. (The 2020 season was not played due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Wednesday’s win was the 10th straight for Middle (15-2). Included in that run was a 4-1 win over an Ocean City team that had handed Middle a 3-2 loss earlier this season.
“I think we turned a corner after that Ocean City match,” said 16th-year Middle coach Matt Gilbert. “That was a big win for us after losing to them earlier.”
Middle hosts third-seeded Audubon on Friday. In an effort to beat the rain forecast to this area for the weekend, the match has been moved to a 10:30 a.m. start. The winner will face top-seeded Haddon Township or No. 4 Haddon Heights next week for the title.
“Our motto this year has been, it’s not where we are today but where are we going to be at the end of the season,” Gilbert said. “That said, we’re going one match at a time.”
Although senior first singles player Max Gilbert — the son of the head coach — has loads of experience to go along with a long list of victories, Middle has relied on lots of young players this season. Juniors Xander Hardin and Shane Kern have piled up victories at second and third singles, respectively.
At first doubles, the team’s only other senior, John Leahy, has joined with sophomore Steve Berrodin to form one of the Cape-Atlantic League’s best tandems. The second doubles team is made up of two freshmen in Simon Hardin and Justin Wen.
“I think we’ve greatly improved the last couple weeks,” coach Gilbert said.
Middle is no stranger to playoff success. The team won South Jersey Group I titles in 2016, 2018 and 2019 after reaching the sectional title match for six straight seasons from 2008 through 2013.
“This is something I aspired for the program since I took it over,” coach Gilbert said. “These are our expectations now. We’ve tried to create a winning culture here. Success breeds success, and that’s due to the boys’ dedication and belief in each other and in what our program has been doing.”